WASHINGTON -- Older Americans widely agree that Congress should strengthen protections against age discrimination in the workplace, according to a new survey commissioned by AARP.
It used to be that if a worker could establish that their age had factored into an adverse employment decision, it was up to the employer to prove age had nothing to do with it. After a 2009 Supreme Court ruling, the burden shifted to the worker, who now has to prove age was the overriding factor for a demotion or firing.
In March, Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley (R) and Tom Harkin (D) introduced a bill to undo the Supreme Court's handiwork. The goal of the legislation is a popular one: According AARP's poll, 84 percent of Americans aged 50 and up think Congress should do more to ensure equal opportunity for older workers.
"This AARP survey confirms what America knows: huge majorities demand fairness for older workers," AARP's Nancy LeaMond said in a statement. The powerhouse seniors lobbying group, obviously, supports the legislation in a big way.
A greater proportion of older workers is participating in the labor force than in previous generations. And while their unemployment rate is lower than the overall rate, older workers who do lose their jobs confront the prospect of never working again. The average jobless spell for people 55 and up lasts longer than a year, compared with 38.5 weeks for younger workers.
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AARP's survey also found 77 percent of respondents fear age would be an obstacle if they had to find new jobs, 64 percent think older workers face age discrimination, and, when told about the legislation, 78 percent favor the Grassley-Harkin bill.
The Iowa senators introduced the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act to stick up for their constituent, Jack Gross of Des Moines, the plaintiff in the 2009 Supreme Court case. Gross, a former insurance claims administration manager, had sued his company for age discrimination following a 2003 demotion. A jury eventually awarded damages, but the Supreme Court sided with Gross' employer.
A former colleague told HuffPost last year that he witnessed the retaliatory treatment Gross endured after filing his discrimination complaint in 2003. "Here's a very highly educated man, very knowledgeable in [his] field, and they just threw him in the trash."
Not everyone loves the idea of Congress confronting age discrimination. At a hearing in May, a witness from a conservative think tank suggested "such policies would needlessly set one generation against another."