The unemployment rate for over-55s is at the highest level since 1948. Since the recession started, both the number of older people seeking work and the rate of unemployment for over-55s have increased more sharply than for all other demographic groups. And older workers comprise a high share of the long-term unemployed. In May, the average duration of unemployment for older job-seekers climbed to 44.2 weeks, 11 more weeks than the national average. Nearly six in ten older job-seekers have been out of work for more than six months.
If national trends are anything like what I see here in Silicon Valley, where many of the waves of layoffs specifically targeted older workers because they have higher health-care costs and are paid more, then enforcement could make a difference. People could begin to find jobs with healthcare, and start meeting their mortgage and other obligations again.
Companies here in Silicon Valley shed their older workers during the years of Bush-era non-enforcement of labor laws. They were forced to sign "waivers" saying they would not complain about the age discrimination, told if they did not sign they would not receive any severance that was available or would be denied unemployment compensation.
Now, during the Obama-era non-enforcement of labor laws many companies around here flat-out will not hire people over "a certain age" (varies by profession) and everyone knows it. The unemployment rate is lower because so many older people understand the situation and are not "actively" looking for work. They are still unemployed but not counted in the statistics.
(Don't get me started about the scam of a company laying off older, higher-wage workers and then pleading that they can't find qualified workers so can they import H1B workers, who are lower-paid. There are legitimate reasons for H1B workers, and then there are wage-reducing scams.)
Still, evidence of age bias in hiring is accumulating in academic research and anecdotal reports to the EEOC, Commission on Civil Rights and AARP. In one famed 2005 study, a Texas A&M economist sent out 4,000 job applications for entry-level positions. (The resumes were only women's.) Older workers were 40 percent less likely to receive a response back. And of the letters sent to Congress last week, a vast majority mentioned age, many coming from older workers who had applied for hundreds of positions, to no avail.
It is these older long-term-unemployed workers for whom the now-ending COBRA subsidies were, literally, a lifesaver. These are the people who either will not be able to get a health insurance policy because they tend to have conditions that insurance companies don't want to cover, or who won't be able to afford the policy anyway if they can get it. You see, they are unemployed and health care costs much more for older people.
If age discrimination laws were enforced would this change the nature of unemployment? As these workers are reluctantly hired by companies afraid to be caught in a "sting" or other enforcement operation the pool of remaining unemployed will shift.
This is worth a try. The Labor Department could publicly announce a campaign of enforcement -- they don't even have to actually do it -- and employers across the country would begin to hire a token person over 45 here and there.
Another area where law enforcement could do some good is by enforcing regulations that determine whether an employee is a "contractor" or a real employee. If the Labor Department enforced those regulations many people would being to receive the benefits, vacations, overtime and other advantages of regular employment that they are currently denied on a mass scale.
Unfortunately, policy experts fear that age discrimination in hiring, compounded by the recession, is a problem without a solution. Individuals can bring cases against individual companies, but discrimination is virtually impossible to prove, even if it is easy to see as an aggregate phenomenon. Plus, McCann says, explains, the phenomenon is so prevalent that discrimination simply seems like reality.
An idea, what about a pretend enforcement campaign? If we can't get the Obama administration to act on this - it has been a year and a half and Bush-era non-enforcement continues - maybe we can get The Yes Men to pretend to be the Labor Department doing its job, and announce enforcement operations. This will trigger at least some hiring as companies are reminded that the government used to enforce the law, and might again one day.