Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants based on many factors, including race, gender, disability status and religious beliefs. In addition, most states have anti-employment discrimination statutes of their own. Many state laws go beyond federal protections, for example prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

These categories are known as “protected classes” because they have historically faced discrimination in the workplace. Age is another protected class, specifically older (and in some cases, younger) workers. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was passed to prevent employers from treating a worker or applicant unfairly solely on the basis of age.

Exceptions to the rule

However, the ADEA contains several exceptions that allow employers to make decisions about their workforce based on their employees’ age. These include:

  • Small businesses. The ADEA does not apply to businesses with fewer than 20 employees.
  • Bona fide occupational qualifications. An employer may implement an age range requirement if there is a bona fide reason the worker must be a certain age in order to perform the job adequately, and if there is a reasonable belief that workers outside that age range are unable to do the job safely. An example might be a job opening for an airline pilot.
  • Seniority system. A legitimate seniority system for determining benefits and wages is allowed.
  • Executive/high policymaker retirement ages. Under the ADEA, a company can force its executives and upper management to retire at age 65 if the company provides an annual pension of at least $44,000 after retirement.

Often, when an employee files a lawsuit over age discrimination, the employer will reply that the actions it took against the worker were within one of these exceptions or otherwise allowed by law. If your career has been harmed by age discrimination, you should consult an attorney who represents employees in employment discrimination actions.