State May Help in Fight Against Ageism

Times Staff Writer

Question: In a recent "Dear Abby" column there was a question about being asked your age on a questionnaire. Abby's answer was that you are not obligated to answer a question simply because it was asked. Last February I was terminated from my job as a legal secretary after my boss, an attorney, accidentally saw my driver's license lying on my desk with my age (69) on it.

Three months before this, I was given a wonderful job evaluation by this same attorney, and the office manager said, after her consultation with him, that they usually gave an employee a 7% raise after one year, but, because I had done such an excellent job, they were giving me a 10% raise. After he had seen my age on my driver's license, though, he seemed to become dissatisfied with everything I did, culminating in his firing me for doing poor work. He dated young women and said once to a friend on the phone about a prospective date for him--who was 30 years old--that she was "too old."

Enrolled in School

While collecting unemployment benefits, I enrolled in a word-processing school to improve my skills. Recently I went to an employment agency, and when I filled out the papers the interviewer asked for my driver's license. I gave her an extra license I had and used white-out on my year of birth. She said I had to tell her my age because of immigration rules. They haven't found any jobs for me.

About a week ago I went to another agency and left my driver's license at home, telling her that since I no longer have a car I don't carry it with me. This one too told me that because of immigration rules I would have to send her a photocopy of the license.

Do I have to tell them my true age or can you find out for me what the legal situation is? I am ready to go to work and don't want to be considered "elderly" when they see my age, because I certainly am not in any sense of the word.--E.J.B.

Answer: I admire your spirit, because I too am at an age at which--while I wouldn't apply for a job as a hang-gliding instructor--I could be similarly pigeonholed.

Theoretically, Abby is correct in saying you don't have to answer every question that is asked on a questionnaire, although what sort of negative impact skipping the age question might have on a potential employer's attitude is unknown--and, even if such an impact is indeed present it might be impossible to prove.

According to Herschel Elkins, senior assistant in the state attorney general's office, the employment agencies are giving it to you straight when they say they "have to have positive information that she has a legal right to be here, and that producing the applicant's driver's license is the most common way of doing this."

However, he added, it's not the only document that will do the job. A birth certificate is even better but, obviously, is the worst way in the world to hide your age.

"There's nothing to stop her, though, from offering her voter's registration card," Elkins said.

Legally, there is no longer any magic cutoff age at which an employee can be automatically terminated simply by virtue of attaining that age--as there once was at age 65 and then 70. Competence, or the lack of it, is the only criterion, according to Carol Schiller, regional administrator in Southern California for the state's Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Even less well known than the lack of a legal-age ceiling, however, is the fact that it is relatively easy for someone who feels that he has been the victim of age discrimination to file a formal complaint against an employer. Note, though, that this isn't quite the same thing as saying it's a piece of cake to prove such a charge.

"About 8,000 to 9,000 discrimination charges are filed each year in California," Schiller said, "and while sex discrimination is the largest category--about 43% of the cases filed--and racial discrimination is second with 23% of the cases, age discrimination is a lot more common than you might think, accounting for about 18% of the filings."

Act Quickly

You're going to have to act pretty quickly, though. There's a one-year statute of limitations for filing such a complaint with the state, and because you were terminated last February, the clock is ticking. The deadline applies only to the filing of the complaint, not the resolution.

"What she should do," Schiller added, "is to give us a call (at (213) 620-2610) and tell us what happened. We'll then send her information on how to file and the sort of evidence she'll need, and when she comes to our office (322 West 1st St.), we'll help her with the complaint form."

Once this is done, the state investigates, and if the discrimination charge holds up, Schiller's Department of Fair Employment and Housing initiates a resolution procedure designed to rectify the discrimination.

"We've got a pretty good track record," Schiller said, "about 30% of all discrimination complaints are resolved voluntarily.

"But, if resolution fails and there's evidence of an illegal act of discrimination that is provable," she added, "we take the accusation before a department commissioner--there are seven of them appointed by the governor--for a hearing. Although a ruling against the employer, following the hearing, can be appealed, it's also enforceable."

Some Go to Court

If resolution isn't reached, Schiller said, some complainants skip the hearing procedure and take the case directly into civil court themselves.

"If this woman, for some reason, doesn't meet our one-year deadline for filing," she added, "she can still pursue it at the federal level--with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission--where the procedure is essentially the same, but where there is a two-year deadline for filing."

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