by Dana Mattioli
Age discrimination in the workplace has long been a concern for the 55-and-older set. In this downturn, however, younger workers may have as much to fear as their more-mature colleagues.
Employees in their 20s and 30s are finding themselves more at risk of a layoff, according to labor lawyers, as employers look to avoid age-discrimination lawsuits by adopting a "last one in, first one out" policy and turn to tenure as a means of conducting layoffs. In some cases, young, childless professionals say they feel they're being targeted in layoffs, while employees who have families to support are given special consideration.
While no age group is exempt from layoffs, younger workers seem to be shouldering a larger percentage of the burden, according to recent Labor Department figures. The unemployment rate for those between the ages of 25 and 34 was 9.6% in April 2009, up from 4.9% a year earlier. For those ages 55 and older, the unemployment rate was 6.2% in April 2009, compared with 3.3% a year earlier.
Wary of Lawsuits
While younger workers tend to earn the lowest salaries, making them the least-expensive workers to retain, companies are becoming wary of laying off older, better-paid workers. In fact, Gerald Maatman, co-chairman of the class-action litigation practice at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, which represents employers, says he has been fielding more inquiries about laying off younger workers than in years past, especially from companies in states like New Jersey and Michigan that have laws to protect workers as young as 18. Age-discrimination lawsuits brought by older workers can cost more than the salary of the worker who was laid off and can hurt the company's reputation, according to Andria Ryan, partner at Atlanta law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP.
"Younger people, in general are a lot less of a risk [for lawsuits] when you do a reduction in force," says Ms. Ryan. While most states protect employees 40 and older from age discrimination, only a handful of jurisdictions extend this protection to employees as young as 18, she says.
"Companies don't like [layoffs by seniority], but [they're] also the easiest to defend," says Gerald Hathaway, co-chairman of the business-restructuring practice group with employment law firm Littler Mendelson. "If you have a bona fide seniority system it's a defense for any type of discrimination," according to the law, he adds.
Seniority in Education
This is particularly true in the education field, where many colleges and schools are taking measures to protect tenured teachers and professors. David Schauer, superintendent of Kyrene Elementary School District No. 28 in Tempe, Ariz., sent layoff notices to 68 teachers in anticipation of budget cuts. The cuts target only first-year continuing teachers, most of whom are in their 20s, says Mr. Schauer. "My worst fear is that really good people will leave teaching," he says.
Nicole Ryan, a 24-year-old sixth-grade math teacher for Fox Lane Middle School, in Bedford, N.Y., received such a layoff notice. The notice was sent out to teachers and staff based on their seniority. So, despite strong performance reviews, budget cuts mean she may not have a job to return to in the fall. "I knew it was coming because, based on seniority, I was lower on the totem pole," she says. "It didn't make it any easier."
The emotional impact of layoffs can affect a manager's decision when it comes to choosing who gets the ax -- and that can also disproportionately affect younger workers. "It takes a tremendous toll on managers," says Mitchell Marks, a professor of organizational change in the College of Business at San Francisco State University. Mr. Marks says when layoff decisions come to a tie breaker, personal and family situations often come into play.
"I've had plenty of managers sit me down and say 'Joe's spouse just got diagnosed with cancer but Jane's spouse is an M.D.,' " says Mr. Marks of the explanations of how a layoff has been decided. The same decision-making process can occur when choosing who gets laid off between a single 20-something employee or, say, a 50-year-old employee with two kids in college.
Svetlana Gelman, 24, worked in the marketing department of a law firm until December when she was laid off. She feels strongly that her age and the fact that she doesn't have a family to support put her at greater risk before the layoff. Ms. Gelman says she was competing head-to-head with another employee with a child, who was hired a few months after Ms. Gelman and often would use her sacrifices as a parent to tout her dedication to the firm. "The person was very tactical, she would bring the child in, spoke about him all the time and would say things like 'My child is sick but I'm still here,' " says Ms. Gelman.
And as work became more scarce and layoffs loomed, Ms. Gelman says she was let go while her colleague remained, despite the fact that Ms. Gelman earned less and often worked longer hours because of her co-worker's child-care responsibilities.
Still, there are ways younger workers can go about safeguarding their jobs. High-maintenance attitudes typical of younger workers also make them more prone to the chopping block in a down economy, says Bruce Tulgan, author of "Not Everyone Gets a Trophy." Twentysomething professionals tend to demand flexibility, responsibility and high pay, he says -- all things that aren't going to be well-received in this environment.
"This is a really great time to come in early, stay late, dot your i's and cross your t's," says Mr. Tulgan. He says young employees should volunteer to do grunt work, take advantage of free certifications their companies offer and be compliant, rather than demanding.
Ms. Ryan, the attorney, says now is the time to make yourself as invaluable to a company as possible. She recommends cross-training in another department, learning as much as possible about different areas of the company and expressing a willingness to relocate to less desirable locations (something those with families often can't do).
You might also try to align yourself with someone in senior management. This could be in a mentor relationship or as a volunteer on a big project a manager is working on. Although executives are busier these days, they often view being asked to mentor as a compliment, says Mr. Marks. And if it should come to layoff decisions, "It doesn't hurt to have someone in the executive conference room on your side," he says.
Write to Dana Mattioli at firstname.lastname@example.org