As the nation’s workforce ages and as many longtime workers claim they are being deliberately targeted for reductions, age discrimination complaints have been made more difficult to prove.
For more than four decades, manufacturing was the only work Donetta Raymond knew.
Fresh from high school, she followed her father to the factory floor because, she said, “It was the best-paying job around.”
Starting as a sheet-metal mechanic, Raymond found plenty of work in her hometown, Wichita, Kansas, home to famous names in aviation like Cessna, Beech and Boeing.
She applied her skills, eventually becoming a production-operation specialist on 737 airplane fuselages at Boeing’s sprawling facilities. Her work was praised consistently, including a good performance review in 2012 from the management of Spirit AeroSystems Holdings.
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The next year, she underwent a separate company review to gauge whether the company should retain her. Ominously, she slid to a “C” from her “A” rating the previous year.
And just a few months later, the company laid off hundreds of longtime workers, including her, then age 59. The layoffs were swift and blunt.
“They walked us out, and wouldn’t let us go back and say goodbye,” said a fellow worker, Debra Hatcher, 57, then a manufacturing-operations analyst. “They drove us to an empty parking lot, and that was it.”
Spirit AeroSystems — formed from Boeing’s 2005 sale of its Wichita division and Oklahoma operations — is an important supplier for Boeing, its biggest customer, and a rival, Airbus, chalking up nearly $1.7 billion in revenue in the first quarter of this year.
When it laid off 360 workers in summer 2013, the company was not closing down or moving jobs to Mexico or anywhere else. Spirit, which has 11,000 employees in Wichita and operations in Europe and Asia, said layoffs among its salaried employees and managers were necessary to remain competitive.
Today, a lawsuit filed by 70 former employees, including Raymond, is in proceedings in federal district court in Wichita. The lawsuit was cleared first by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which must decide the validity of any claim of age or disability discrimination before it can proceed.
The workers brought the suit after discovering that nearly half — or 164 — of those in the 2013 layoffs were 40 or older, the age that initiates federal age-discrimination-law protections. And workers charge that they were singled out, in addition, because either they or their spouses had serious medical conditions.
Spirit maintains it does not discriminate in hiring or termination decisions.
“We are confident the evidence in this case will show Spirit is compliant with the law in its employment practices,” said Fred Malley, Spirit’s spokesman
Such lawsuits are popping up as the nation’s workforce ages and as many longtime workers claim they are being deliberately targeted for such reductions. As manufacturing has contracted, more experienced workers feel they have limited options for re-employment if they are discarded at older ages.
Proving age bias is difficult. Even companies that decide that older workers are too expensive, with their larger paychecks and costlier health insurance, rarely detail this in internal documents or emails. And court rulings have given companies significant leeway to defend against such lawsuits.
“Employers have a great deal of freedom to decide how layoffs occur,” said Lisa Klerman, a law professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, and a mediator in employment disputes.
In Wichita, dozens of laid-off Spirit employees who are challenging their layoffs say their situation was exacerbated by the company’s use of personal medical information to single them out for layoffs.
A short time before the dismissals, they said in legal papers, Spirit switched to self-paid medical insurance, giving it an incentive to jettison higher-risk or sick employees to save money, they say.
Then a few months after the 2013 layoffs, Spirit held a job fair to recruit for empty jobs, some of which appeared to have the same or similar duties to the positions that had been vacated.
But, according to Raymond and others, the company, Wichita’s largest employer, with few exceptions, would not accept résumés, interview or rehire the discharged workers. Since those layoffs four years ago, aircraft-parts plants in Wichita are now scrambling to find enough workers to fill a resurgence in orders.
But that is little consolation to Raymond, who last October was told she had ovarian cancer.
To get by, she said, she had drawn down her savings, started her Social Security benefits earlier than planned and underwent retraining to use power tools to make cabinets.
She was further squeezed financially because she did not take the company’s severance pay package and waived further claims against it.
“It hurt big time not to do that,” she said, “But I think it was unethical and illegal to use our health conditions and age against us, and I want to see that through and make sure everyone knows the company did that.”