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Push on To Curb Age Bias in the Workplace

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In 2008, Miki Herman was excited about being recruited for a senior management position at a well-known company in Oregon. “I felt like my skill set lined up really well,” says Herman, who is now 74 and retired.

But she discovered her years of experience in technology, retail and nonprofits didn’t matter when a senior manager focused on her age during an in-person job interview. The manager told her the company was “very brand conscious and culture conscious” and that Herman — then 59 and no longer sporting an athletic build — wasn’t “what they were looking for,” she recalls.

“I was kinda stunned,” says Herman, an AARP Oregon volunteer from Portland. She didn’t get a final interview.

A recent AARP Oregon survey of voters aged 40-plus found 55 percent have seen or experienced age discrimination at work; of those respondents, 88 percent think it’s common.

Such findings are motivating AARP Oregon to push legislation to strengthen the state’s workplace age discrimination law.

“There’s a confounding disconnect between the current workforce crisis and supporting older workers who are ready and able to contribute,” says Andrea Meyer, AARP Oregon’s government relations director. “Fixing the law shouldn’t be a problem for employers who don’t engage in age discrimination. It’s really only a problem for those who do and can currently get away with it.”

The legislation would forbid companies from asking age-related questions in the application process; bar age-biased language such as “college age” and “digital native” in job advertisements; and prohibit the use of proxies for age, such as salary or retirement eligibility. It was initially introduced in 2023 but stalled in the state House.

The legislation would also create a statutory definition of age discrimination, says Rep. Nathan Sosa (D-Hillsboro), cosponsor of the original bill. “Oregon law says that you cannot discriminate against someone because of age, but we don’t define what ‘because of age’ means,” Sosa says.

Sen. Suzanne Weber (R-Tillamook) also supports updating the law, saying it will help protect older workers from employers who may be biased against hiring them or keeping them on. “Older workers are a critical part of our workforce,” she adds.

While every state but South Dakota has a workplace age discrimination law, and a handful prohibit age-related questions on job applications, the proposed Oregon law would be unique in updating the definition of age, Meyer says.

The AARP survey found that 92 percent of respondents agree older Americans should be protected from workplace age discrimination the same way they are from discrimination based on race, sex, national origin or religion. But while those other forms are covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, age discrimination comes under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which doesn’t offer the same level of protections. It prohibits job discrimination against people 40 and older.

Oregon Business & Industry, a statewide association, opposed the 2023 bill, saying existing state law offers enough protections and surpasses federal law by protecting more people — employees aged 18 and up.

AARP plans to spend 2024 educating lawmakers and the public about why it’s necessary; they’ll push for new legislation in 2025.

The education campaign could also have an effect on 2024 races for the Oregon State Legislature: According to the survey, 71 percent of respondents are likely to back a legislative candidate who supports updating the law.

Julie Rasicot, a writer and editor in Montgomery County, Maryland, writes regularly for the AARP Bulletin.

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