Older Workers: How Old is Too Old?

October 11th, 2011 by

For 36 years Rodolfo Meza worked for Aerol Corporation in Rancho Diminguez CA as a metal worker making cast iron and aluminum molds. He was about 48 when he began working; he was about 84 when he was terminated while on medical leave for a knee operation. Rodolfo sued, claiming age discrimination, raising the question: how old is too old to work?
In the course of his trial and subsequent appeal, Rodolfo noted that his immediate supervisor commented frequently about his being “too old to work.” Despite operations for a hernia and a knee replacement (the court rulings do not indicate whether these were covered by workers comp), Rodolfo had every intention of continuing to work. When his normal job became a bit difficult for him to perform, he requested a transfer to the engineering department, where he often had performed work. His supervisor responded “no, Rudy I can’t [transfer you]. You are too old to move to engineering.”
When he was terminated in 2009, his 24 year old son (conceived when Rodolfo was 60!) noted that he became sad and depressed.
Age Has Its Benefits
A jury awarded Rodolfo $100,000 for future economic loss: based upon his annual earnings, that’s a little over three additional years of employment, bringing Rodolfo to age 87. In addition, they awarded $300,000 for past non-economic damages (presumably, the ongoing agist comments of his supervisor). That’s a lot of money for an individual nearly 20 years past the conventional retirement age.
Aerol appealed and lost. The CA Court of Appeals found a pattern of discrimination, along with a legal technicality that prevented Aerol from contesting the award for the future earnings: Aerol failed to raise the issue in a timely manner during the initial the trial.
Expensive Lessons in Human Resource Management
Is the court saying that employers must continue to employ workers into their 80s, with no recourse available to force retirement? Can workers work as long as they like?
Not really.
Aerol – through the actions of Rodolfo’s supervisor – made a number of critical mistakes in managing this situation. The supervisor made repeated comments about Rodolfo’s age; the supervisor should have been warned to cease this behavior and disciplined if he continued. Rodolfo had an exemplary record of employment; there was no (written) indication that his performance had deteriorated. When Rodolfo felt less capable of doing his regular job and requested a transfer, he was denied the opportunity based solely upon his age. When he requested time off for the knee surgery, it was granted; there was no indication that his job would be eliminated during his absence, but that’s exactly how Aerol proceeded.
A Word to the Wise on Aging
Savvy employers would do well to learn from Aerol’s mistakes:
– Never assume that based solely upon age a worker is “too old”
– Focus on the essential job requirements: employees must be able to safely perform jobs as specified (some accommodation based upon age should be considered)
– Document any problems in performance
– Train supervisors in managing older workers (along with women, minorities, disabled workers and any other protected classes)
– Above all, keep lines of communication open.
Rodolfo gave 36 years to Aerol. He deserved consideration as he grew older, but he was not guaranteed a job. If and when any issues of his job performance arose, his supervisor should have sat down with him to discuss them openly. Ironically, there are no real winners in this situation: Aerol (or its insurer) took a big hit economically. They also lost a loyal employee who was still capable of making a positive contribution to the company. Rodolfo lost the job he loved and lived for. To be sure, he now has a nice nest egg for retirement, but that is not what he wanted most. He was one older worker who just wanted to keep on working.

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