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Lawmakers passed a bill last week that would allow seniors to fight age discrimination in the workplace more easily — and that could help protect older Americans at a precarious time in their financial lives.
The House of Representatives passed the Protecting Older Workers against Discrimination Act on Wednesday in a 261-155 vote.
The bill would restore protections eroded by a 2009 Supreme Court ruling in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., which made it more difficult for workers age 40 and older to sue businesses for age discrimination such as being forced out of a job or denied a work opportunity, according to experts.
The Supreme Court said in its ruling that older Americans must prove age was a decisive factor in an employer’s decision. The bill would revert to the previous legal threshold, a lower bar that said older workers must prove age was just one of several factors.
Around 61% of older workers have either faced or observed age bias, according to a 2018 survey conducted by AARP, an advocacy group for older Americans.
And the share of older people in the labor force is increasing.
By 2024, there will be roughly 41 million Americans ages 55 and older working — about an 8% increase from current figures, according to AARP.
Losing a job could prove to be financially devastating for older employees— compared with their younger cohorts.
That’s because it’s typically more challenging for older Americans to find employment, and the work they do find often pays a lower wage than their previous job, said Odette Williamson, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.
“They’ll struggle to bridge the gap between the resources they need to live on and they wage they’ll be receiving,” she said.
Roughly 56% of older workers experience at least one involuntary job loss after age 50, according to a joint study conducted by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica and the Urban Institute, a think tank.
Only about 1 in 10 of those workers who lose their jobs involuntarily ever earn as much per week afterward, the report found.
Americans are also going into their retirement years with more debt than previous generations, Williamson said.
Around 60% of households headed by an adult aged 65 or older had some form of debt in 2016, an increase from 41.5% in 1992, according to the National Council on Aging.
The median total debt for older households swelled to $31,300 in 2016, more than 2.5 times what it was in 2001, the Council said.
That debt, such as mortgages, credit-card balances and student loans, could compound the effects of a job loss or income reduction due to age discrimination.
“The ability to stay employed later in life is essential if they’re not going to go into poverty,” Williamson said of older Americans.
The Protecting Older Workers against Discrimination Act now heads to the Senate, where experts say it will likely stall, despite some bipartisan agreement, due partly to the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) have sponsored companion legislation in that congressional chamber.