Wednesday, 30 June 2010

US: Age bias complaints surge in bad economy

After getting laid off from her job at a private school, Joyce Kalivas-Griffin was heartened to see virtually the same job open up at another school in her area.

Kalivas-Griffin, 57, applied for the job, but heard nothing. Then the job was posted again, and she applied again, this time submitting a resume that she had edited to mask her age.

The second time, she said she was called in for an interview, but eventually lost out to a younger candidate.

Kalivas-Griffin doesn’t think that the other candidate was any less qualified, but she does think that her own age played a role in not getting the job.

“I have to kind of be almost pragmatic about it,” she said. “Would I hire somebody that was 57, thinking, ‘Will she be around? Will I be able to have a history with her (or) will she retire in two years or four years or six years?’”

The recent recession has amplified concerns that older workers are facing a tougher time getting — or keeping — jobs because of stereotypes about everything from the salaries they may demand to their ability to learn new skills.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saw a 33 percent increase in the number of age discrimination complaints that were filed during its past two fiscal years combined, as compared to the prior two fiscal years. That translates into 47,360 complaints filed between October 2007, two months before the nation went into recession, and September of 2009.

Over the same two-year period, total discrimination complaints to the EEOC rose 19 percent, to 188,679. Discrimination complaints in general tend to rise during economic downturns, when people are more likely to lose a job and have more trouble finding new work.

Older workers seen as more expensive

Companies are desperate to cut costs in a weak economy. Experts say older workers can become more vulnerable because more experienced workers tend to command higher salaries. A company looking at the bottom line may conclude that the best thing to do is cut the most expensive employees.

“What they end up doing is lay off the older folks,” said Mike Baldonado, district director of the EEOC in the San Francisco office, which has seen a surge in complaints since the recession began.

Some older workers, such as Kalivas-Griffin, say they are finding their job search much more arduous than in the past.

The unemployment rate for workers 55 and older is lower than for any other age group, at 7.1 percent in May as compared to 9.7 percent for the population as a whole. But those older workers who lose their jobs are taking much longer to find a new one.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said workers ages 55 to 64 were taking an average of 44.5 weeks to find a new job in May, compared with 35.1 weeks for the population as a whole. The latest jobless numbers for June are due out Friday.

Assumptions are widespread

Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who has researched this topic extensively, said that while most employers know it’s unacceptable to make a broad judgments about women or minorities — such as saying that they don’t respond well to change or aren’t fast learners — people will routinely make such comments about older workers.

“What is different about age discrimination is that the assumptions are so much more widespread and the apparent willingness to act on them is much more widespread,” Cappelli said.

Kalivas-Griffin, who lives in Tacoma, Wash., had been the facilities and transportation secretary at a private school for 12 years when she was laid off in November of 2008. She thought her years at the private school, combined with extensive prior experience doing bookkeeping and taxes, would make her an ideal job candidate.

Instead, she now thinks that her long resume could have been a turnoff to employers, who may have worried that she’d be overqualified or not stick around long enough.

Besides editing her resume, Kalivas-Griffin has lost 25 pounds and cut and dyed her hair. Still, she’s had no luck landing a job.

She’d prefer a full-time job because it would give her and her husband, a contract worker, access to health insurance and other benefits. But increasingly, she said she is moving toward starting her own bookkeeping and tax business, while selling custom-made jewelry on the side.

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