The ADA and Aging Workers
Research and statistics (not to mention personal experience for many of us) tell us that disability often comes with advancing age, whether it be a mild hearing loss, slight stiffness in the knees, or more substantial limitations. However, such limitations don’t necessarily have to stop us from working productively, contributing to the workforce and the economic well-being of our families and communities.
Many employers have embraced greater workplace flexibility in recent generations, responding to more women entering the workforce, working parents caring for young children, and middle-aged workers caring for elderly family members. Adaptations ranging from on-site day care centers to allowing employees to work from home have enabled employers to gain a competitive edge in the search for talent.
Accommodating workers with disabilities is another tool in the employer’s toolbox, and when older employees acquire disabilities, creative accommodation can lead to the retention of skilled, experienced workers. And valuable experience is not only about honing technical skills, but also about developing the kinds of qualities that often come with maturity – prudence, discretion, wisdom. As Laura Helmuth says in her series on longevity in Slate magazine, “old people are awesome.”
Old people aren’t merely less bellicose and impulsive than young people. They’re also, as a group, wiser, happier, and more socially adept. They handle negative information better, have stronger relationships, and find better solutions to interpersonal conflicts than younger people do.
~Laura Helmuth, “Long Lives Made Humans Human,” Slate Magazine 2013
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 prohibits discrimination against workers who are 40 years of age or older. The ADEA covers employment agencies, labor organizations, and employers with 20 or more employees, including state and local government agencies. It also covers the federal government.
The ADEA, similar to the ADA, addresses harassment, retaliation, and adverse actions in various aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, job assignments, training opportunities, and benefits. However, the ADEA does allow employers, in certain limited circumstances, to reduce benefits to older workers to balance the costs of providing benefits that become more expensive with advancing age (e.g. life or health insurance), and to “offset” some benefits according to other benefits older workers receive (e.g. Medicare).
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulates and enforces the ADEA as well as the employment provisions of the ADA (Title I), along with several other federal employment laws (including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act).
Individuals often charge employers with discriminating on more than one basis, such as race and national origin, or disability and age. Since age and disability do often go together (though not always), it is not uncommon for older employees to feel they are being discriminated against based on both factors. Discrimination can occur either because an older worker has an actual, known disability, or because an employer assumes an older worker has a disability due to her age. This the type of discrimination may fall under the “regarded as” prong of the ADA’s definition of disability – discrimination based on perception.
Average Life Expectancy is Climbing
The average life expectancy in the United States at the dawn of the 20th century was not even 50 years; just one hundred years later it had climbed to nearly 77.1 Life expectancy is even greater for those who have survived the perils of infancy and youth, and reached adulthood. An individual who is currently 65 years old has a good chance of reaching 85.2
If human society is to continue on our trajectory of success as we move into the new millennium, we need the skills and talents of everyone. We cannot afford to sideline valuable, experienced workers because they have reached a certain age or because they have developed disabilities.
There are a number of resources to help both employers and older workers learn about tools and strategies to maximize the potential of mature workers, including the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the U.S. Department of Labor, the Job Accommodation Network, and AARP.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2015
2Social Security Administration, The 2015 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds