U.S. Supreme Court Decisions Favorable to Older Workers

By Rosenblatt, Robert A. | Aging Today, July/August 2008 | Go to article overview

U.S. Supreme Court Decisions Favorable to Older Workers


Rosenblatt, Robert A., Aging Today


POTOMAC SOURCES

The claim is that boomers always want to be different. Retire at 65? Forget about it.

They want the cash to keep up their living standards, to pay for ever-rising health expenses, to help send the grandkids to college, to stay engaged mentally and physically. Polls conducted by AARP since 1998 have shown that an astonishing eight in 10 want to keep working beyond the conventional retirement age. However, the numbers show a major conflict between boomers' hopes and current realities: Less than 50% of people ages 65-plus in the United States are active members of the labor market.

To change the numbers dramatically, boomers need a working environment where they are both welcomed and protected from age discrimination. Thanks to the United States Supreme Court this year, boomers have some encouraging signs of change. In a series of key decisions, the court seems to have reversed the trend in federal courts in recent years and affirmed that an employer can't discriminate against someone age 40 or older.

In Gómez-Pérez v. Potter, Myrna Gómez-Pérez, a 45-year-old U.S. postal worker in Puerto Rico, transferred to another office to be near her ill mother. Later, when she tried to go back to her old job, management wouldn't let her return and hired a younger worker instead. She complained about age discrimination and her supervisor retaliated against her by sharply reducing her working hours. She sued.

The law says a person can't be punished for complaining about age discrimination. But postal service management argued that the protections against retaliation didn't apply to federal workers. If management had won, the impact of the decision could have removed this legal safeguard from millions of federal workers. But the court ruled 6-3 in favor of the worker, with Justice Samuel Alito writing the majority opinion.

PROFOUND IMPLICATIONS

Another case, Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, has profound implications for workers in private industry. A contracting company working on repairs for atomic submarines had to cut back costs and terminated 31 workers-30 of whom were age 40 or older. The company gave no indication that it considered age in determining who would be laid off, so there was no smoking gun to prove discrimination. No one in management had uttered explicitly discriminatory comments such as, "Did you come over on the Mayflower?" or "You are getting pretty old for this job."

A worker sued, arguing discrimination had occurred as a result of the layoffs. Management maintained that the workers had to prove they were being discriminated against. The Supreme Court, in its 7-1 decision, overturned a lower-court finding. Justice David Souter's majority opinion said management, not the employee, must prove that its layoff rules are fair to workers of all ages.

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