Saturday, 7 July 2018

He Called Older Employees ‘Dead Wood.’ Two Sued for Age Discrimination and Took Back Their Jobs.


It’s a stressful thing to sue your former employer for age discrimination.

For nearly four years, as they pursued a federal lawsuit against administrators at Ohio State University and awaited action by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Julianne Taaffe, and Kathryn Moon worried about their finances, their health and their futures.

The two women had worked within the English as a second language program at Ohio State since 1983, teaching students from 40 countries.

“We helped build the program from the bottom up,” said Ms. Taaffe.

So in 2009, when a replacement program director began disparaging them and other veteran E.S.L. staffers while promoting younger and fewer experienced people, they wondered — despite their consistently first-rate performance reviews — if they’d screwed up somehow.

Though age discrimination seemed a possible explanation — Ms. Taaffe is now 62 and Ms.

Moon, 67 — “I couldn’t bring myself to believe Ohio State would do anything like that,” Ms. Moon said.

Then came an email in 2010 from their new boss to a lover at another university.

He wrote that he was handling “an extraordinarily change-averse the population of people, most of whom are over 50, contemplating retirement (or not) and it’s like herding hippos.” Then he inadvertently copied one among his own staff.

For years thereafter, experienced E.S.L. teachers faced actions they believed were intended to force them from their jobs.

Junior colleagues not only got promotions but choice assignments.

Older instructors lost their offices and, reassigned to a cramped open space, shared an insufficient number of computers whilst younger colleagues kept their offices and desktops.

The director’s successor continued his policies and staffers heard him deride veteran teachers as “millstones” and “deadwood.” 

“It was a part of the technique to form us uncomfortable and make us retire,” said Ms. Moon.

Eventually, quite 20 E.S.L. staffers were squeezed out, their positions threatened with elimination or reclassification at lower salaries.

When Ms. Taaffe lodged a proper complaint, a university investigation brought no action.

She lost 23 pounds and developed the beginnings of an ulcer. Ms. Moon, who said the conflict “felt sort of a giant knot within the pit of my stomach for months and months,” suffered insomnia and back spasms.

In 2014, both women retired years before they’d intended, because they expected to lose their positions and faced prohibitively expensive insurance costs if they delayed.

Neither could find a comparable position elsewhere.

Recent events have brought some vindication, however.

In November, the E.E.O.C. found “reasonable cause to believe” that the ladies and their older colleagues had been discriminated against, a violation of the federal Age Discrimination employed Act, which protects workers 40 and older.

Then, very quietly, on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, Ohio State announced a settlement.

“Ohio State University is committed to hiring and retaining a various and inclusive workforce,” the university said during a statement to the days.

The university denied that it had acted unlawfully and taken no action against any employee.

But the university has rehired both women and agreed to back pay and retroactive benefits totaling about $203,000 for Ms. Taaffe and $237,000 for Ms. Moon.

It also paid $325,000 in attorneys’ fees to the Gittes Law Group, the firm representing the ladies, and the AARP Foundation lawyers who joined their suit.

More importantly, the plaintiffs won “prospective injunctive relief,” actions to avert illegal policies within the future. Ohio State has agreed to coach human resources staff to acknowledge, investigate, and stop age discrimination.

And it'll establish a “second-look process,” an independent review aged discrimination investigations.

“That’s one among the main victories within the case,” said Dara Smith, an AARP Foundation attorney.

the 2 plaintiffs “would not accept the settlement until we reassured them that the university would need to change its policies.”

The settlement could prove important for the quite 5 million Americans who work for state governments and entities.

“State and native government employers are still learning that there’s an age law which it’s applied to them since 1974,” said Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, a senior attorney-adviser at the E.E.O.C. But since a Supreme Court decision in 2000, plaintiffs who bring age discrimination suits against state employers cannot collect damages, making attorneys reluctant to require such cases.

(Plaintiffs can seek damages from private employers or the federal,

however, and in some cases from local governments.) “It takes an extended time to undertake these cases, then there’s no payoff albeit you win,” Ms.

Smith said. The E.E.O.C. can sue for damages on behalf of complainants, though Ms.
Smith said she thought it unlikely during this case.

The Ohio State settlement, however, demonstrates that “it is often worthwhile to bring these claims” against states, she said.

“It’s a public reminder that they have to require age discrimination as seriously as they take other sorts of discrimination.”

Although the federal age discrimination law took effect 50 years ago, a milestone the E.E.O.C. has marked with a replacement report, “age usually gets overlooked when companies think about diversity,” Ms. Ventrell-Monsees said.

“If an equivalent supervisor made those comments about race or sex, they’d know trouble was coming.”

Ohio State, as an example, agreed in its settlement to incorporate age as a prohibited sort of  discrimination on its website.

As recently as last week, a number of its jobs pages listed race, gender, sexual orientation, and other categories as protected, but not age.

Several administrators there seemed to not grasp the law.

rummaging through email chains unearthed through the lawsuit, attorneys found statements like this one from the new E.S.L. program director in 2013: pertaining to a younger instructor who’d left the program, he lamented that older staffers “were squatting on spots that ought to are available to young bucks!” Women appear particularly affected.

Last year, the E.E.O.C. received 18,376 complaints of age discrimination — “a tiny fraction of what’s likely out there,” Ms. Ventrell-Monsees said. And most were filed by women.

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