TOPICS > Politics

Age Bias

November 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: In a twist, the court is being asked whether age bias applies to younger workers. Today’s arguments focused on claims of reverse discrimination, that older employees are favored in its company’s retirement plans. Here to tell us more about today’s proceedings is NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg of the Chicago Tribune.

Jan, I guess the journey to the Supreme Court starts in this case with General Dynamics and a group of its workers.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. This case came about when General Dynamics in 1997 negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement with its union. Now, that agreement provided that General Dynamics would give retiree health benefits only to those workers who retired with 30 years seniority, and who were at least 50 years old by July of 1997. So a group of younger workers, those who were from age 40 to age 50, said wait a minute, this violates federal law. The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. They pointed to that law, filed a lawsuit said what General Dynamics was doing was flatly illegal.

RAY SUAREZ: What does the ADEA say that allowed them to point say, “look, this is clearly not right?”

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The Age Discrimination Act prohibits employers from discriminating people because of their age, in hiring, firing, and terms and conditions of employment. And the language is pretty clear. It says that employers can’t discriminate against any such individual because of their age. And it applies to people who are older, who are 40 years old and older.

So the workers in this case at General Dynamics who were aged 40 to 50 who weren’t going to get those retiree health benefits said that General Dynamics was violating the law. And a lower court agreed, a federal appeals court agreed. And so General Dynamics took its case to the Supreme Court today.

RAY SUAREZ: And once it got to court, I mean, isn’t this what they call a prima facie case, that the law says XYZ and if you don’t do XYZ…

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That was certainly the argument of the younger older workers, those a lawyer representing those age 40 to 50. And he said the statute, he argued today, the statute is clear, it doesn’t say older workers, it says no discrimination because of a person’s age. And it doesn’t say because a person is not quite the right age.

So they said the statute is clear on its face. But the lawyer for General Dynamics very forcefully argued today that the court has to look at what Congress had in mind when it passed this statute back in 1967.

Congress, he said, was trying to combat stereotypes that older workers were less productive and less competent, and that they passed this law to protect them from discrimination that would be targeted then because of these illegal stereotypes based on their age. So he argued that the court had to look at what the law was all about, and not get caught up in this statutory language that the other side was very clear.

RAY SUAREZ: So the General Dynamics lawyers were in effect arguing intent, that Congress passed this law to protect older workers, not younger ones?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s exactly right, and they said to look at this case any other way would simply turn the age bias statute on its head and it would prohibit companies from doing any kind of accommodation for older workers at the expense of those workers in the aged 40 to 50 group, for example, and several justices, by the way, were very concerned and seemed very, very skeptical of the other side’s arguments after they heard some of these complaints.

For example, he said that this could prohibit companies from letting older workers have flexible working hours or working part-time, and a whole range of things that were designed to help older workers that Congress surely wanted employers to do — that employers no longer would be able to do that if the lower court opinion stood in this case.

RAY SUAREZ: But isn’t the question then whether, when you use that phrase, older workers, because of what the ADEA says, you mean people over 40, not just over 50 or over 60.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, that’s right and that’s what again the lawyer for the younger older workers who were seeking these retiree health benefits said in this case, that the statute was clear.

The Bush administration has joined with those workers and a lawyer for the Justice Department also argued today that the statute is crystal clear, that it makes no distinction, it says this law covers workers who are 40 years old and older, and it doesn’t say that you can exclude if you’re an employer workers who are under 50. So the Justice Department lawyer today made the same point, that the lawyer for the aggrieved workers did, that they should also be included in these type of benefits packages, and that companies couldn’t just keep them out.

Now, the Justices indicated through their questions that they did not think that this law was so clear, and they were very concerned by General Dynamics lawyers’ points that a ruling against General Dynamics could have a terrible effect on older workers. Justice Breyer, for example, said that such a ruling would just blow up the statute. And he couldn’t imagine that Congress had intended that result. Justice Scalia said that so we have here a piece of legislation designed to aid older workers, actually harming them. That’s a very strange consequence, he said.

Justice Ginsburg was very worried also about whether or not this would take off the table any efforts that an employer may have to cut a break to an older worker, to say give him a more flexible schedule. And Justice O’Connor even said let’s look beyond these kind of working conditions, let’s look at some other federal laws that may come into play if this lower court ruling stands. What about other employee benefits lost, what about tax laws that allow older workers to take withdrawals out of retirement accounts without any penalties? Those laws, she suggested, also could be called into question if the court in this case ruled against General Dynamics and said that it had to include all of the workers over 40.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, depending on how this judgment comes down, could this force Congress to go down and revisit the Age Discrimination and Employment Act, and have to rewrite certain portions?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, Certainly if congress believes that the older workers, say the ones who are over 50 or over 55 are the ones who really need to get, be able to get more benefits and more accommodation, certainly a ruling against the company in this case could suggest that Congress may want to take another look at that law. But the Justice Department and the lawyer for the aggrieved workers in this case say that wasn’t Congress’s intent.

Congress was worried about protecting all workers who may be discriminated against oh who are over 40 because of their age, and the lawyer for the Justice Department said that some of those accommodations for older workers are grounded on illegal stereotypes. Maybe it’s not such a good thing if an employer thinks that an older worker needs some kind of accommodation because they’re not as quick or not as productive. So he suggested that some of these plans that may be cutting older workers a break actually are grounded in these bad stereotypes that Congress was trying to prohibit.

RAY SUAREZ: Jan Crawford Greenburg, thanks for being with us.