Age discrimination suits skyrocket nationwide and in Tampa Bay

Former captain and 28-year veteran Skip Stone and five other older employees of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office filed suit last week with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Their claim: age discrimination.

Waitress and bartender for 20 years, Martha Fonseca was 72 when she sued employer, Tampa Bay Downs, earlier this year. She was fired, allegedly for giving away two draft beers.

She says she was prohibited from serving high-value customers like New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and was let go for being too old.

Innisbrook Resort concierge Elizabeth Conrath was 89 when she was shown the door, allegedly replaced by a man roughly one third her age. Earlier this year, she and three other ex-Innisbrook employees, ages 75, 60 and 48, sued Palm Harbor-based Innisbrook claiming age discrimination.

It's a confusing and, for many, scary time to be getting older in an economically depressed workplace. It's far worse sporting gray hair while looking for work.

Experts say age discrimination is skyrocketing. The number of charges filed with the EEOC in fiscal 2008 is up 30 percent from 2007, twice the pace of overall discrimination charges.

Age bias can be terribly subtle. Older job applicants typically are told they are "overqualified" or are competing for a job described as an "energetic position." And employers recognize that while older workers may be highly productive, they are not as likely to increase that productivity as much as younger workers.

In June, a Supreme Court decision made it more difficult to prove age discrimination by requiring that workers show that age was the deciding factor among many in an employment decision.

In response, Congress introduced legislation last week to make it easier for older workers to win age discrimination lawsuits. Most discrimination suits are settled out of court.

A youth message permeates our society and advertising. If older men want to be attractive to younger women, tone down the gray hair. And if older men and women want to be more competitive in the job market, fix the sagging face, improve the lumpy physique and whiten those teeth.

Of course, all of this comes at the worst of times. Baby boomers, those roughly 45 to 65, comprise a huge percentage of the work force. They tend to be more expensive employees because of seniority and experience. To a point, it is only natural they will seem prominent in layoffs.

Yet these are the same folks whose 401(k) retirement accounts got especially hammered by the sharp stock market losses of the past year and who lack the time needed to rebuild those savings. The market has rebounded since its low in March but remains sharply lower than where it stood in September 2008.

Aggravating the wretched job market are the increasing numbers of retirees who, similarly hurt by stock losses, are attempting to re-enter the work force to supplement their depleted savings.

That all makes for a lot of older people swirling in the American job scene.

The sad joke in all this pain is that workplace experts have long predicted that U.S. companies will be hard pressed to fill many jobs as baby boomers enter retirement. Encouraging older workers to hang on to their jobs was popular advice not so long ago. That premise, clearly, has moved to the back burner.

At the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, security guard Paul Moringiello was 81 when he was fired. He sued this summer.

Older car salesmen seem especially vulnerable to losing their jobs and, in turn are suing more often this year. Joseph Lentini, 54, sued Lokey Automotive; Jackie Lee Markley, 56, sued AutoWay Toyota, and a trio of ex-salesmen — Michael Stanton, 55, Tom May, 58, and Brad Worth, 55 — sued Larry Dimmitt Cadillac.

I could list others, but I've suddenly got to head over to Walgreens. I just hope there's some Just for Men hair coloring still on the shelves.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Age discrimination suits skyrocket nationwide and in Tampa Bay 10/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 10, 2009 5:31am]

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