Age discrimination on the job is treating an employee unfairly because he or she is 40 or older. Age discrimination can affect any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, promotions, benefits, and compensation. The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) enforces the federal laws that prohibit age discrimination in employment practices. States may have additional anti-discrimination regulations.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is the primary federal law that prohibits discrimination based on age. The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, an amendment to ADEA, adds further protections by prohibiting employers from denying benefits to older employees.
ADEA protection may not apply if age is a "bona fide occupational qualification" for a job. An employer must prove the age limit is reasonably necessary to the essential functions of the job or operation of the business, and that age is the only disqualification for the job. For example, it would not be illegal for a theatre company to audition only younger actors for the role of a 16-year-old.
Employers with 20 or more employees must uphold the age discrimination law. The law covers both current employees and applicants.
Federal law protects employees in the following areas:
Recruitment and hiring. Employers are prohibited from including age limits or preferences in job postings or advertisements, unless age is a bona fide occupational qualification. Although it isn't against the law for an employer to ask an applicant's age or date of birth, these inquiries may be closely scrutinized to make sure they don't lead to discriminatory hiring.
Pay, promotions, and terms of employment. Age may not be the basis for differences in compensation, work assignments, performance evaluations, training, discipline, termination, or any other condition of employment.
Benefits. Although benefits for an older worker may cost an employer more, the employer must provide equal benefits for older and younger employees. Employers may only reduce benefits if the cost of providing benefits decreases for both older and younger workers.
Apprenticeships. Apprenticeship programs generally can't discriminate based on age. Age limitations are valid in limited cases.
Retaliation. Employers may not fire, demote, or otherwise retaliate against an employee who opposes age discrimination or participates in an anti-discriminatory proceeding.
You may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC at no cost. Charges should be filed within 180 days of the incident, or within 300 days of the incident if a state or local law applies.
You don't need a lawyer to file a charge with the EEOC, but you may want to seek legal advice if you pursue a private lawsuit.