Older job applicants suspect age bias lurks behind rebuffs

Discrimination by employers illegal but is tough to prove


One in an occasional series

Mary Gambill, 65, with her dog Brewster, said she suspects that her age is frightening off employers. ‘I’m not feeble, I don’t have gray hair. But they look at me like I can’t handle the job.’
Mary Gambill, 65, with her dog Brewster, said she suspects that her age is frightening off employers. ‘I’m not feeble, I don’t have gray hair. But they look at me like I can’t handle the job.’

When Mary Gambill walks into a job interview, she does so confidently.

But the Pemberville woman wonders what the person on the other side of the table sees. Do they note her experience, or do they focus on her years?

“I think that sometimes when they’re looking at me, they’re looking at my age and thinking to themselves ‘How long will she be here? Is she going to retire? Is she going to die?’ ”

Mrs. Gambill has no intention of retiring — or dying, for that matter — any time soon. But at 65, she suspects her age scares off employers.

“I’m not feeble, I don’t have gray hair. But they look at me like I can’t handle the job,” she said.

Mrs. Gambill’s frustrations are hardly unique. More than 1.5 million Americans over the age of 45 have been out of work for more than six months. Many of them believe one of the primary reasons they remain locked out of a job is their age.

The federal legislation that protects those age 40 and above from workplace discrimination was signed into law in 1967, but advocates and labor law experts say it remains all too common.

Recent research from AARP found that nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers between the ages of 45 and 74 say they either have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. The number is even higher among those looking for work, with 77 percent saying they believe they’ve been a victim of age discrimination.

“We know that persistent age discrimination is a key reason older workers face longer periods of unemployment than younger workers when they lose their job,” said Kathy Keller, a spokesman for AARP Ohio.

Older people who become unemployed spend nearly twice as long looking for work as their younger counterparts. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median duration of unemployment for those age 20 to 24 is 12 weeks. That jumps to 21 weeks for people between the ages of 45 and 54, and 23 weeks for those age 55 to 64.

Patty Wise, a lawyer at Niehaus & Associates Ltd. in Toledo who specializes in labor and employment law, said she thinks at least part of the reason for that is because many employers don’t want to hire older workers.

“I think there’s a perception sometimes that if you’ve been out of the work force, you’re lacking some skills, you’re not willing to adapt to a workplace,” Ms. Wise said. “Those tend to be the exact stereotypes people tend to have about people in the protected-age class.”

But proving age discrimination, particularly when it comes to hiring, is very difficult.

“Knowing [age] is the reason, as opposed to some other reason, is almost impossible,” Ms. Wise said.

Data from the Ohio Civil Rights Commission illustrate how few claims are successful. The commission averaged 56 hiring-based complaints a year from 2009 to 2013. It found no probable cause in 70 percent of those cases.

Employers aren’t likely to come right out and say age is why an applicant didn’t get the job, and some may not even realize they’re harboring biases. Plus, there are many perfectly legitimate reasons why they may choose one person over another.

Because of that, the costs involved with filing a case and the difficulty in collecting damages, attorneys say few people pursue civil litigation.

“In the hiring process it’s very difficult to prove and very difficult to get anything out of it,” said Toledo attorney Scott Ciolek. “It’s hard to say why the determination was made, and it’s not very easy to make a lost wage claim for someone who was otherwise not working.”

In spite of that, experts say age discrimination is one of the most common types of workplace discrimination.

“I think age discrimination is one of the more prevalent ones of all the different types of employment discrimination,” said Mike Zickar, an industrial-organizational psychologist at Bowling Green State University.

While younger employees are typically cheaper to hire, Mr. Zickar said that’s not the only reason many employers seem to favor younger hires.

“They think they’re going to spend their whole career here, they have more energy, they’re going to be more productive over the long term. Employers use that kind of logic to discriminate against age, when in fact most employees don’t stay with an organization that long anyway,” Mr. Zickar said. “Hiring an older employee, you may get as much tenure out of them as somebody who’s younger and might leave.”

Some employers may not understand the law as well as they should.

“I think that employers are very well versed in the law in terms of race and gender. They’re probably training annually and feeling they have a good handle on those issues in the workplace,” Ms. Wise said. “I’m guessing age has not gotten a lot of attention.”

Mr. Zickar believes age discrimination is more tolerated by society. The idea that the older someone is, the less they keep up with society and technology seems to be almost universal.

“There are lots of employees who are going to be just as tech savvy, even though they’re older,” Mr. Zickar said.

Take, for instance, Kent Kahn’s office administrator.

The man is 79 years old “and he can work Excel like nobody’s business,” Mr. Kahn said. “You just have to give people a chance.”

Mr. Kahn is the Ohio director of Experience Works, a national, grant-funded nonprofit that helps low-income older people get training and find employment.

His office operates the Senior Community Service Employment Program, a federally funded program that places those age 55 and up with limited income in minimum-wage jobs at local nonprofits. The idea is that the workers also will get some on-the-job training.

“It is the perception that if people are older they’re not going to have the computer skills, the technology skills that younger people are going to have,” Mr. Kahn said.

“One thing we have learned is older people take a little bit longer to learn technology, but they are quite able to master it, and once they know it, they're able to keep up with it,” Mr. Kahn said.

He says the best way for workers to combat age discrimination is to make sure they’re up to date on current practices and technology.

“My message to older people is [to] improve your skills, have what employers are looking for, and there’s a good likelihood they’ll hire you,” Mr. Kahn said.

For Mrs. Gambill, it’s not quite that simple.

She’s been unemployed since she was laid off in August. While that is a long time to go without a paycheck, it hasn’t been so long that workplace technology has passed her by.

After seven years of doing basic accounting and human resource functions at her last job, Mrs. Gambill is confident her skills are useful and up to date.

And she says she’s not being picky; she’s applied to nursing homes, hotels, and retailers.

“Maybe they’re looking at my experience and thinking I should do something else,” she said, “but I’m willing to work for $8 an hour. That should be doable.”

Like others in her position, she wonders why employers don’t seem to value experience, but Mrs. Gambill said she’s not sure what to do about it.

“I would do about anything right now to work,” Mrs. Gambill said.

“I need the money. I’d like to get out of the house. I don’t want to be sitting here getting older and getting staler.”

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134 or on Twitter @BladeAutoWriter.