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Age Discrimination's Impact Disputed In Congressional Hearing On Unemployment

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In this April 24, 2012, photo shows job seekers waiting in line during a job fair, In Portland, Ore
In this April 24, 2012, photo shows job seekers waiting in line during a job fair, In Portland, Ore

WASHINGTON -- Philadelphia resident Sheila Whitelaw lost her job as a manager at a clothing store when the store closed in 2010. She suspects she hasn't found steady work since because she's too old.

"At 71 years of age, I didn't know how long it might take to find a job; the economy was in bad shape with millions of people out of work," Whitelaw, now 73, said Tuesday. "I started sending out my resume to hundreds of jobs. I have had about 15 interviews, but I rarely even receive a response afterward. It then occurred to me that a potential employee could look me up on the internet, and lo and behold, there was my age, clearly printed for all to see! I sensed my inability to find work had something to do with age, but I couldn't prove it."

Whitelaw spoke as a witness during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Aging, chaired by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), examining the predicament facing older workers who've lost their jobs during the economic malaise of the last few years. Older workers are less likely to become unemployed than younger workers, but they're much more likely to remain unemployed for a long period of time once they lose their jobs.

In a Tuesday report that coincided with the hearing, the Government Accountability Office, an investigational arm of Congress, reported that older jobseekers and economic experts alike have identified age discrimination as an obstacle to getting older folks back to work. Long-term joblessness among older workers means deferred medical care, foreclosure, loss of retirement savings and loss of self-worth.

But Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, disputed suggestions from the GAO and others that age discrimination is a big problem. She said she opposed new government efforts to help older workers.

"While I agree with the factual findings that older workers face serious difficulties in today's underperforming labor market, I disagree with the report's implication that the problems facing older workers require targeted policies that treat older workers differently than other workers," Furchtgott-Roth said. "Such policies would needlessly set one generation against another. They rest on the false premise that the problems facing older workers are the result of discrimination, or other factors that work specifically against older workers and in favor of younger workers."

Furchtgott-Roth noted that while the unemployment rate for workers older than 55 is higher than it used to be at 6.3 percent, it's lower than the national average of 8.1 percent. And the labor force participation rate for baby boomers has steadily risen since the 1990s as it has declined overall.

Workers and their advocates generally concede that in most cases, it's impossible to prove age discrimination. Whitelaw and many others are nevertheless certain they know what's going on. Whitelaw said she had an epiphany after being passed over in a recent job application.

"I had gone on an interview at Bloomingdales for a British clothing company that was opening a boutique inside Bloomingdales," Whitelaw said. "While I was being interviewed, the potential employer took a call from another person looking for work, he made arrangements to interview her the next day (I could hear the conversation as I was sitting across the desk) and he even mentioned her name! I was not hired. A couple of weeks later my friend and I took a little trip to Bloomingdales to see if indeed this person was hired. And of course she was, and we estimated she was in her mid-20's."

The Committee on Aging also heard testimony from Joseph Carbone, president of a Connecticut company implementing a state initiative trying to reconnect the long-term jobless to jobs, and Christine Owens, director of the National Employment Law Project, which has advocated for legislation targeting age discrimination and discrimination against the unemployed.

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