Know your workplace rights: Is it illegal to be fired for being too old?

Mar 1, 2012, 9:44 a.m.

You bet it is. An entire body of law and many court cases have put employers on notice that it is illegal to be fired from work based on age. In fact, the law even protects older workers who file suit from any countersuit by the company. But like most legal battles, winning your case in court can be a long and winding road.

Federal lawmakers passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), protecting individuals who are 40 or older. The ADEA addresses issues involved with hiring, firing, your compensation and promotion, as well as access to training, benefits and any other aspect of employment. ADEA applies to companies with 20 or more employees. Independent contractors, police, firefighters, most government workers and highly paid executives are generally excluded from protection under ADEA.

The law has been updated by Congress and interpreted through several Supreme Court cases.

The first legislative action that updated ADEA was the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act passed in October 1990 that clarifies how companies can respond to ADEA lawsuits. Then in 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a paper company could discharge employees with the biggest paychecks to save money, even if that meant older employees with more years of service were the most adversely affected. Later, in 2000, the Court ruled that an older employee must only prove that the company lied about the reason he or she was fired, not that he was too old to work. Finally, the most recent 2005 Supreme Court ruling laid down a rationale for workers suing on the basis of "disparate impact," in which older workers are more adversely affected by a company's action than younger workers.

If you feel you have been discriminated against based on age, your best course of action is to schedule an appointment with a labor law attorney, who can be found easily on-line.

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