Federal and California laws prohibit employers from using an employee's age as a basis for employment decisions (if the employee is at least 40 years old). For example, it is illegal for an employer to limit its job search to younger applicants because it believes they will demand less pay, to discourage older employees from applying for training programs or promotions, or to target older workers for layoffs.
Federal Law: Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) in 1967 to prohibit employers from discriminating against older workers. At the time, it was not uncommon for employers to force employees to retire when they reached a certain age, regardless of their skills and abilities. The ADEA changed the workplace landscape to protect employees from these types of arbitrary decisions. Although the law originally protected employees only until they reached the age of 70, the upper limit was removed during the Reagan administration.
The ADEA applies to employers with at least 20 employees. The ADEA prevents such employers from discriminating in employment against workers aged 40 or older, and makes it unlawful for an employer to discharge any individual or otherwise to discriminate against any individual in respect to his or her compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment. Discrimination in the provision of benefits is also prohibited.
California Law: Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)
California law also prohibits age discrimination. The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) protects workers aged 40 or older from discrimination in the workplace or in hiring practices.
While the law is similar to the ADEA, it has a wider span. FEHA applies to smaller employers: Any employer with at least five employees is covered by the law.
Filing a Charge of Discrimination
If you believe you have been discriminated against based on your age, you should speak to an experienced California employment lawyer. Before you can sue your employer for age discrimination, you must first file a charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the state's Department of Fair Employment and Housing. There are strict time limits for filing a charge, and you must act quickly to preserve your right to sue.
Once the agency has finished processing your charge (which might include investigating, trying to settle the dispute, or mediation), it will likely issue you a "right-to-sue" letter, stating that you have followed the rules requiring you to first file your charge with an administrative agency, and that you are now free to take your dispute to court. Once you receive a right-to-sue letter, you have a limited amount of time to file a lawsuit. An experienced attorney can assess your case, help you decide how to proceed, and make sure you meet all of the requirements and deadlines necessary to protect your rights.