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Workplace's silver ceiling not a concern when you're 29

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 19, 2001


Please be fooled by my new and doctored photo. Gone are the graying hair and abundant jowl of a 46-year-old.

Today, I'm 29. Really.

Young. Enthusiastic and cheap to hire. Hip to new tech and business trends. Ready for today's hard-charging workplace. That's me.

Just don't lay me off just because in real life I look like the second photo: 20 years older.

Truth be told, I am a baby boomer. Part of that population bulge born between 1946 and 1964 that, in this slowing U.S. economy, suddenly finds itself on the receiving end of more and more pink slips.

Government layoff figures don't lie. The Department of Labor says the number of unemployed workers 55 and older jumped 23 percent, from 431,000 in June 2000 to 521,000 in June of this year.

In contrast, workers age 20 to 24 have seen unemployment increase only 10 percent during the same time.

Looks like some serious age discrimination is at work to me.

A lot of older workers must think so, too.

Last year, 16,008 individuals filed age-discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That's up 13 percent from the 14,141 charges in 1999.

It's the highest number since the recession of the early 1990s, when job cuts were even deeper.

No wonder companies say they see more age fudging on resumes by middle-age job applicants.

Did I mention I'm 29?

Aging, higher-price boomers are obvious targets in times of downsizing. But unlike our more stoic parents, boomers love to whine -- and sue.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act bars employers from using age as a basis for hiring and firing.

Age concern in the workplace is getting so intense that a new term is emerging: the "silver ceiling." That's what we gray hairs are starting to hit when we try to climb higher on the corporate ladder.

Among the companies recently hit with age-discrimination lawsuits:

Lucent Technologies. Hundreds of laid-off workers are hiring attorneys and involving the EEOC to sue the struggling tech company.

Ford Motor. Ford managers are suing the automaker over its employee grading system. Plaintiffs claim the system adversely affects older workers. A "C" grade for two consecutive years was grounds for demotion or termination. Last month, Ford stopped using the grading system.

Mitsubishi. Five laid-off managers at an Illinois plant charged the automaker discriminated against them because of their age and because they were not Japanese.

Procter & Gamble. A senior executive sued, alleging the Ohio company discriminated against older employees in its drive to cut about 16 percent of its 110,000-member work force.

The oldest of the country's 77-million baby boomers, nearly a quarter of all Americans, are just hitting 55. The median age of the labor force is increasing to 40.7 in 2008 from 35.9 in 1988.

The upshot? Given such demographic trends, more lawsuits seem inevitable.

* * *

Tampa Bay area businesses are hardly immune to allegations of age discrimination.

After Anheuser-Busch closed its brewery in Tampa, seven former employees in 1998 sued the company, saying they weren't given jobs at other breweries because of their ages.

The former Lykes Pasco Inc. and John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance have faced similar claims. And former WTSP-Ch. 10 anchor Pat Minarcin, now a Tampa Tribune editor, sued the TV station, saying WTSP fired him because he was too old.

But two area lawsuits stand out for their length of time in court and notoriety.

In the first case, older workers who were laid off at the nuclear trigger plant in Largo run by Lockheed Martin sued for discrimination in 1993.

In the second case, employees laid off by Florida Power Corp. in 1995 sued, claiming the electric utility purposely fired its older, senior employees.

Both cases are disturbing because after eight and six years, respectively, the lawsuits remain unresolved and mired in courts.

And given the older ages of the plaintiffs, these glacial-moving suits are especially vexing. Many Florida Power and Lockheed Martin workers involved in this litigation never found comparable-paying jobs and suffered sometimes dramatic declines in their living standards while awaiting a legal outcome. Others struggling with disease have died.

The Lockheed Martin suit might be showing signs of progress. On Friday, attorneys in the case met in Albuquerque, N.M., to explore a fresh possibility of a settlement. The breakthrough could be the recent involvement of the Department of Energy, whose nuclear trigger plant in Largo was run by Lockheed Martin.

The DOE may be more willing than Lockheed Martin to end this suit.

Wayne Johnson, a lead plaintiff in the case, says his peers in the class-action suit are hopeful of cutting a deal. But the group has been disappointed numerous times over the year. Nobody's holding their breath this time.

The court system has no room for the little guy, Johnson says. "They wear you down, that's what they do."

The 116 former employees of Florida Power have even less to cheer about. Their suit is older than Johnson's.

After fighting for years as a class action, a judge granted Florida Power's motion to decertify or invalidate the suit's class status. That decision was appealed.

Last month, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that disparate claims cannot be brought under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. That ruling in effect upheld the lower court's ruling to invalidate the suit as a class action.

A court hearing is scheduled in Ocala on Wednesday to determine the next step in the lengthy dispute.

As more age discrimination suits hit the courts, they will face a difficult legal system.

Federal appeals courts are more hostile to workers who allege job discrimination than they are to almost any other plaintiff, says a Cornell Law School analysis published this summer.

What's a pink-slipped boomer to do?

The good news is that boomers, on average, will live longer than their parents. That offers greater hope for a successful wrap-up of litigation within a boomer's lifetime.

Or, like my own vain and unsuccessful strategy, boomers can try to look and act younger to delay the day of the silver ceiling.

Did I mention that I'm 29?

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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