The Age Discrimination in Employment Act is the primary federal statutory remedy for victims of age discrimination in the workplace. The ADEA prohibits employers with 20 or more employees from discriminating against employees and prospective employees or applicants because of their age in hiring, transfer, promotion, demotion, and dismissal as well as in conditions of employment, including compensation and benefit plans. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act also makes it illegal for employers to retaliate against employees or prospective employees who oppose practices made unlawful under the statute by filing Age Discrimination in Employment Act complaints or suits or by participating in investigations, proceedings, or litigation under its far-reaching provisions.
Some of the statutory exceptions to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act’s antidiscrimination provisions are relevant to colleges and universities. Employers may take otherwise prohibited actions if age is a bona fide occupational qualification for institutions’ normal operations. Moreover, except for nonhiring decisions such as transfers based on age where it may be a relevant consideration due to the nature of the work involved and involuntary retirements, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act exempts bona fide seniority systems and employee benefit plans such as voluntary early retirement incentive plans if they meet specified guidelines.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) administratively enforces the provisions of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Individuals must first file charges with the EEOC, which notifies prospective defendants and must attempt to eliminate alleged unlawful actions through informal negotiations before it may file civil judicial actions. The ADEA authorizes courts to award equitable relief to prevailing plaintiffs, such as reinstatement, back pay, damages, and attorney’s fees.
Originally, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act covered workers aged 40 to 65 but did not apply to states and their agencies. Congressional amendments extended the ADEA’s coverage to state governments and their political subdivisions, including public colleges and universities; the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of this extension in the face of a Tenth Amendment immunity challenge in EEOC v. Wyoming (1983). Congress also removed the upper age limit for all but a few employment categories that are rarely an issue in higher education settings; for example, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act allows compulsory retirement for firefighters, law enforcement officers, and in some circumstances bona fide executives or those in high policy-making positions.