As the federal workforce ages, can agencies force retirement?

On Behalf of | Jan 24, 2023 | Age Discrimination

There is no mandatory retirement age for federal employees, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, government agencies could force employees to retire as recently as the mid-1980s.

Much has changed over the intervening decades, including the makeup of the federal workforce. It has aged continually. Employees over 40 years of age now comprise 72% of the workforce. By contrast, only 54% of private sector employees are over the age of 40. However, if you think this means the federal government treats older employees better, you might be surprised.

Age discrimination can take many forms

Some forms of age discrimination are obviously problematic. When agencies choose not to hire or promote older workers, those are clearly red flags. So, too, are decisions to lay off large groups of older workers, only to turn around and hire younger workers.

Other forms of discrimination are subtler. And now that workers no longer face mandatory retirement ages, they may, instead, find themselves “influenced” toward retirement. As the Federal Times notes, managers may change workloads. They often relieve older workers of so many responsibilities that the workers have nearly nothing to do. Except retire.

What if employees don’t want to retire?

Interestingly, federal agencies have more reason to be wary of age discrimination than other employers. Discrimination may be illegal everywhere, but federal employees are more likely to take action.

According to the most recent data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), federal employees remain 8 to 9% more likely to report age discrimination. Indeed, age-based concerns factor into 31% of all federal discrimination complaints.

This likely owes to two facts:

  • As we already noted, older workers make up a greater percentage of the federal workforce than of the private sector workforce.
  • Federal employees are, on the whole, better educated. A recent report from the White House clarifies this, showing that federal employees have long held advanced degrees at a higher rate. Not only this, but that gap has been growing over the years.

The result is that federal employees are more likely to understand their options when confronted with age discrimination. When their managers try to coax them out of the workforce by starving them of work, some may simply coast. Some may choose to depart. But many know they can report the behaviors, and they do.

Some arguments are more effective

Even though federal employees are more likely to report age-based discrimination, private sector employees are more likely to win their cases in court. The EEOC found that 2.6% of private sector complaints led to findings, compared to only 0.5% of federal complaints.

It’s important to understand that the numbers are low for two reasons. Many cases settle outside of court. Also, many cases fail. It’s not enough simply to report age discrimination. You need to back up your claims with a strong, solid argument. This can help you in both settlement negotiations and court.

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