For years, employees in technology-related industries have told stories about older workers facing age discrimination at work. Now NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is set to pay $10 million in fines and damages, and make changes in the way hiring and promotions are handled in an effort to combat ageism in technology.
It’s no secret that the tech industry has a problem with ageism. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once famously told a room full of Stanford graduates:
“I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter.”
Tech industry workers report experiencing the effects of ageism as early as 29, compared to 41 in non-technology related fields. In 2020, a survey by Visier of 330,000 employees from 43 US enterprise-level companies showed that, despite older employees rating among the industry’s top performers, systemic ageism was a problem among technology and development companies. The survey showed that the average tech worker is 5 years younger than the average non-tech worker (38 as compared to 43). Technology industry managers are an average of 42 years old, compared to 47 year old non-tech managers.
The difference is in the hiring. Visier found that tech companies hire a higher proportion of younger workers and a smaller proportion of older workers, compared to non-tech. However, when employers consider an employee or applicant’s age in deciding whether to hire or promote them, they may be committing illegal age discrimination.
Older workers are protected under federal law. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) says that employers may not discriminate against people age 40 or older for being “too old” for a job. Unlike other federal anti-discrimination laws, this protection only goes one way. It is not illegal under federal law to discriminate against workers under age 40, or to discriminate against a person because they aren’t “old enough”.
The ADEA makes it illegal for an employer to consider a person’s old age for any aspect of employment, including hiring, promotions, job assignments, or pay. It also prevents workplace harassment based on age. While the occasional “Okay, Boomer” won’t necessarily result in a successful age discrimination complaint, harassment is illegal if it becomes so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment. Firing or demoting a worker because of their age is also illegal.
That's what the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says happened at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. JPL is a federally funded research and development laboratory and NASA field center, managed by the California Institute of Technology. After receiving more than a dozen complaints from older employees from the research and development company, the EEOC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California (EEOC v Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 2:20-cv-03131-CBM-JC). The complaint said that JPL systemically laid off employees over the age of 40 in favor of retaining younger workers, and passed over older employees to rehire less qualified, younger employees in their place.
Then, on June 11, 2020, the EEOC and JPL announced they had come to a settlement in the case. JPL agreed to pay $10 million in fines and monetary relief to the older employees. It also agreed to a consent decree including three years of EEO supervision, and a variety of proactive efforts to prevent further age discrmination in the labs, including:
Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles District said in a statement:
“We commend JPL for its willingness to commit to compliance with the ADEA, for already making proactive efforts to implement much of the injunctive relief, and for taking measures that will have a positive impact on older employees,” said “We encourage other employers to follow JPL’s lead and review their hiring and recruitment policies and practices to make sure they are in compliance with federal law.”
Getting the kind of systemic changes that JPL has promised to make isn’t always easy. Older employees facing age discrimination often must make their case using statistics, hiring trends, and other abstract forms of proof. If you have been laid off, passed over, or not hired because of your age, the employment discrimination attorneys at Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, can help. We will meet with you to review your company's policy and your options, so you can be compensated for the loss of your career. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today for a free consultation.