Virginia Keene was 61-years-old when she was fired by Dillard’s in Cary after working more than 4 years there as an area sales manager. She was replaced by a 24-year-old employee who had only 4 months of experience as a sales manager.
Keene ranked second out of six area managers at the store in terms of sales. She had received positive performance reviews and was recommended for promotion twice. But in the months before Keene got fired, her boss told her she was “too old” for a sales job and that it might be time for a younger manager to take over.
Even though age discrimination is against the law, Virginia Keene is not alone. An AARP survey last year found that 70% of NC voters age 50 and older think older people face age discrimination in the workplace — and a quarter of survey respondents said that they had personally experienced or seen it.
A recent study found “really strong evidence” that older women suffer from discrimination in employment more often than older men. Researchers responded to 40,000 job ads and tracked the responses by age and gender. They suggest that women suffer from both age and sex discrimination and that physical appearance matters more for women workers than for men.
To compound the problem, other research has found that workers who think they have been discriminated against because of their age have worse physical and emotional health than people who have not experienced age discrimination. In fact, perceived discrimination because of age resulted in health declines more than did race, sex, or sexual orientation.
It goes beyond older workers being laid off or fired. Once out of work, older workers are out of work longer than younger workers — on average almost a full year, more than 2 months longer than someone between ages 20 and 29. They receive fewer job offers. When they do get hired, they earn less than younger workers.
Since Social Security benefits are based on what you earn, the combination of age and sex discrimination means that millions of older women live in poverty or near poverty. When you throw racial and ethnic discrimination into the mix, the situation is even worse for African American and Hispanic women.
The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act bars discrimination against workers age 40 and over. But it’s hard to prove discrimination and it got harder with a 2009 Supreme Court decision. That decision means that older workers must prove that age was the decisive reason for their treatment, not one reason among many. If women are the victims of age and sex discrimination, for example, the law makes it practically impossible to prove.
The good news for Virginia Keene is that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Dillard’s on her behalf. The case was settled and Dillard’s paid her $50,000.