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Lawsuits accuse IBM of widespread age discrimination

In March, the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica released an exposé on alleged age discrimination at IBM. In May, a 60-year-old IBM employee from Texas who was laid off last year filed a federal lawsuit accusing the company of targeting older workers for layoffs. Now, three former employees from New York have filed a class action complaining that they, too, were laid off because of their ages, which range from 55 to 67.

According to ProPublica, IBM has been laying off employees since 2012. Since that time, it has laid off at least 20,000 workers over the age of 40. People over 40 accounted for about 60 percent of IBM's total layoffs during the last five years.

Around the same time, IBM announced a company-wide initiative to rebrand itself as a hipper, more Millennial-centric company with fewer "gray hairs," by which it allegedly meant older workers. One confidential planning document recommended the company "correct seniority mix." Basically, IBM appeared to be cutting "old heads."

Discrimination against people 40 and over is illegal under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967. The ADEA prohibits discrimination in every aspect of employment from recruitment and hiring to benefits, job assignments, layoffs and termination. There is only a narrow exception for jobs requiring specific physical qualifications.

Unfortunately, even the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recognizes that age discrimination can be hard to prove. "The fact remains it's an unfair and illegal way to treat people that can be economically devastating," said the EEOC's acting chair.

The ProPublica exposé is well worth reading, not least because the New York plaintiffs apparently relied on it in formulating their complaint. It lays out several ways in which IBM apparently discriminated against people 40 and over:

  • Illegally denying older workers information about age discrimination and requiring them to sign away their right to go to court
  • Targeting older people for layoffs even when they were high performers, often replacing them with younger, less expensive workers
  • Avoiding public disclosure requirements working to increase resignations and firings and by categorizing layoffs as retirements
  • Inviting older, laid-off employees to apply for other positions at IBM but secretly telling the hiring managers not to consider them
  • Laying off some older workers supposedly because their skills were out of date, but re-hiring them as contractors to do the same job for lower pay and less benefits

If the New York case is certified as a class action and IBM loses, it could cost the company millions. It is currently set for a pretrial conference in December.

If you are facing age discrimination at IBM or any employer, discuss your situation with an experienced employment law attorney.

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