What is the ADEA and why is it important for employers and employees? The ADEA stands for the “Age Discrimination in Employment Act”, which protects the employment of older workers in certain ways. The ADEA prevents employers from discriminating against older employees.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)

The ADEA sets certain federal statutory requirements to prevent discriminating by age. The ADEA has, since 1967, been used to protect older job-seekers and employees who want to still compete on an equal footing in the labor market. The ADEA prevents discriminatory practices and helps address the aging American labor force.

Essentially, the ADEA prevents employers from not hiring, from firing, or taking other discriminatory acts against a person who is 40 years old or more just based on their age. Furthermore, the employer needs to give benefits and pay equally if there is no basis besides age. Employers are consequently prevented from categorizing older workers in a discriminatory way.

The ADEA is similar in the way it works and protects a group like other federal laws such as Title VII as well as the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

Who qualifies as an employer under the ADEA

Specifically, the ADEA states that an “employer” includes every person or organization, whether business or non-profit or otherwise, that is doing activities that affect business and have at least 20 employees active each day of at least 20 weeks in the year. The employer needs to have also an employee relationship with the person who might be subject to the ADEA’s protections.  

Who qualifies as an employee under the ADEA?

Who is considered a protected employee varies significantly depending on the person’s characteristics and relationship with the employer, particularly on their activities. For example, those who are independent contractors will not be considered to be employees under the ADEA and therefore are not protected. In order for the person to be protected under the ADEA, they must be an employee.

Furthermore, those who work for an elected official or business executive in a personal capacity are also not considered to be employees. The ADEA specifically states out that these categories are exempt from the ADEA’s protections.  

Other federal laws affecting the ADEA

In the 1990’s, the ADEA was amended and made to give even greater protections due to the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act. In 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Act further expanded the ability of employees to bring lawsuits over age discrimination by amending, among other discrimination legal causes of action, the cause of action for discriminatory practices to not just be created when a discriminatory act occurs but also when the effects of that effect occur, meaning every time the employee is paid. This renews the statute of limitations each time and makes it easier for employees to bring lawsuits.

What Is the ADEA and how does it apply to Washington employers?

The federal government’s EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADEA. The ADEA primary ensures that older persons are not denied benefits or employment, or any aspect of promotion, because of just their age. It applies to not just employees but also people applying for jobs.

Brief summary of ADEA protections

The ADEA gives a wide variety of protections. The first of these is that it prevents job advertisements to include age-discriminatory or preferential language and qualifications. Only if the job truly requires people of a certain age then can the job advertisement be written with an age limitation. The EEOC also does not allow language that is a euphemism for youth to be used.

The ADEA does not prevent the employer from getting the job applicant’s age during the application process. However, the ADEA requires it is only being collected for permitted uses.

The ADEA prevents employers from not giving certain employee benefits to older benefits, except in certain cases where the cost of the benefits is much more for older workers than younger workers.

In certain cases, employees may waive their ADEA rights as well, such as when settling an employment discrimination lawsuit. However federal law requires that if an employee waives their right, their waiving must be down with clear knowledge and done willingly. Because of the way layoffs and firings work, this can often result in complex compliance requirements.

Certain states also have their own age discrimination laws. Washington State, for example, has its own “Law Against Discrimination” (WLAD). The WLAD prevents age discrimination but also applies to groups that have even just eight employees. Certain municipalities also might have age discrimination ordinances that cover even smaller companies. You can find listings of various age discrimination regulations and laws and utilize the services of law firms in navigating the regulatory environment.

What you need to know about the Age Discrimination in Employment Act

Modern workplaces still face many instances of age discrimination. During the Great Recession in particular, age discrimination soared. Many resources are out there providing information about the various age discrimination protections by locality.

How the ADEA Protects You

The ADEA prevents discriminatory actions from being taken in regards to a person’s hiring, employment status, and employment benefits and progression. The ADEA also prevents the explicit use of age-related language in advertisements and other documents, as well as prescribing certain standards to be used when collecting a job applicant’s birthdate or graduation date in an application.

  • The employer also wont be able to set a age maximum in job training programs.

  • The employer also cannot retaliate when a person sends an age discrimination complaint to the government.

  • The employer cannot demand that an employee leave or retire at a specific age, barring a few circumstances.

  • Lastly, the ADEA prevents the employer from using policies that particularly impact older people.

Pursuing a Claim

If a person thinks they have been discriminated against by an employer because of their age, they might have a claim that ought to be pursued. Age discrimination is not only wrong, but can deeply impact older workers’ financial status especially as they near retirement.

Before reaching out to the government, first consider complaining to your employer as well as possibly negotiating or settling with them.

File a charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

You can reach the EEOC through either their website or by phone.

File a charge within 180 days of the discriminatory action or when the worker first became aware of the discriminatory action.

You will need to act fast after you have been discriminated against because of age. There is an overall 300-day limit for filing a charge of age discrimination. After filing the charge, the EEOC will let the employer know and begin an investigation.

The EEOC will look into the charges and see if they are reasonable, as well as if there are ways to remedy the situation without penalties. If there is no remedying the situation in a conciliatory way, then the EEOC will begin proceedings to punish the employer.

Find a lawyer

When filing a claim, you should also find a lawyer who specializes in employment law. The attorney will help you analyze your claim and figure out what you need to do based on regulations. You can go to associations such as the National Employment Lawyers Association to find a directory of lawyers specializing in employment law.

File your lawsuit

After the claim is filed, the EEOC will give a letter that allows a person to sue in court based on the charges. After you receive the letter from the EEOC, you will then be able to formally file your lawsuit up to 90 days later. Even though the ADEA protects older employees on paper, it is only impactful when it is enforced through means such as the EEOC or lawsuits.

A Study of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967

The ADEA was based on the idea that many older employees were finding employment difficult due to certain notions among the population regarding older employees.

In the case Gross v. FBL Financial Services in 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the ADEA demanded nonetheless a high level of proof regarding how discrimination caused the damage to the employee.

What Prompted the Need for the ADEA?

The ADEA came about largely in part because of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s Title VII. The Civil Rights Act’s Title VII was designed to prevent discrimination based on a wide variety of categories, but age was explicitly not included as one of the categories.

Older employees therefore continued to suffer levels of discrimination until the ADEA was passed in 1967. For example, older employee unemployment (at least 27 weeks) increased from 30% to 34% from 1965 to 1966.

At the time there were a few states that had their own age discrimination laws, such as New York and Oregon. However there were only ten in total.

The Statute and Its Amendments

A U.S. Senator, Stephen Young, began interest in the ADEA by describing how discriminatory notions against older employees was due to a different era where life expectancies were lower. As a result of his work and that of others, the ADEA was signed in 1967.

The ADEA in Action

The ADEA gives a wide variety of protections to older employees and protects them from many instances of employment discrimination. The Supreme Court has stated that the ADEA protects older persons in fewer situations as compared to how Title VII protects its listed classes, as it allows the employer to escape liability if there was some alternate reason for their action that was “reasonable.” Because of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the ADEA’s scope, employers often will have an easy excuse to avoid ADEA liability except in very clear-cut cases.

The ADEA at Its 47th Anniversary and Beyond

2017 is the 50th anniversary of the ADEA.

Age Discrimination

Age discrimination remains a consistent problem in the country. Age discrimination is also known as “ageism”, and many employees face discrimination because of it. However often it will be tough to find out what truly motivated an employer’s decision-making.

Which federal law(s) cover older workers?

Often age discrimination does not take place by itself, but also follows other kinds of discrimination, such as regarding sex, race, or disability. There are a variety of federal laws covering those classes as well.


Who is covered by age discrimination laws?

Many states will also have their own age discrimination laws. It will vary by state regarding how many employees the company needs to have. You can find the employment regulations under each state’s particular labor website.

Remember that it will be a challenge usually to prove an employer made an employment decision based on age, even if there are multiple employees affected.

Remember also that both people applying for jobs as well as current and former employees are protected by the ADEA.

Does the ADEA protect me if I am discriminated against for being too young, even if I’m over 40?

The Supreme Court has stated that the ADEA does not prevent employers from giving certain kinds of preferred treatment to younger employees under certain circumstances.

Which employers are covered by the law?

The ADEA does not apply to public officials, certain business executives, or independently-hired contractors. Furthermore, the ADEA only applies to companies that are of a certain size, specifically 20 employees. State law may protect certain employees in smaller companies. Furthermore, court decisions have restricted what kind of remedies those discriminated against can get in court.

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