Getting old in the American workforce is not easy. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, age-related job discrimination cases are way up.
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. – Lawyers for four laid-off IBM employees are asking a federal court to void separation agreements signed by thousands of former workers that prevent them from taking collective legal action over allegations of age discrimination.
The employees are accusing the company of intentionally concealing data about layoffs in a systematic effort to shed its older workers. It marks the latest in a series of allegations of age discrimination against the company, which IBM has denied.
The former IBM employees filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday, alleging that the technology company stopped providing laid-off workers with age-specific demographic information about layoff selections.
But the technology company, which has a site in Poughkeepsie and is based in Armonk, still made the employees sign waivers that relinquish their rights to collectively launch an age discrimination action in order to get any severance payment or benefits, in violation of federal laws, according to the employees.
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Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that because the employees were not provided with the demographic information to which they were legally entitled, the newer waivers are illegal and should be invalidated.
The workers bringing the lawsuit are just four of the 20,000-plus IBM employees over the age of 40 who have been laid off over the past six years, plaintiffs’ lawyers say.
And winning the lawsuit would mean that thousands of laid-off employees who signed the waiver would be able to band together and pursue legal claims, said attorney David Webbert of the Maine-based Johnson, Webbert & Young firm, co-counsel for the plaintiffs.
In an email, IBM spokesman Edward Barbini said “Multiple courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have rejected the plaintiff’s theories. We are confident that our arbitration clauses are legal and appropriate.”
Plaintiffs: IBM changed longtime practice
For 13 years, IBM provided lists to any workers who were laid off, which disclosed the positions and ages of all the employees laid off from their business units at the same time, as well as a list showing the positions and ages of all those in the business units that were not being laid off, according to filings from the plaintiffs’ lawyers.
However, starting in 2014, IBM stopped disclosing this information to the employees and began concealing evidence of its large-scale discriminatory layoffs – called “Resource Actions” – that eliminated older employees in favor of much younger ones, according to plaintiffs. IBM’s actions violate the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, they say.
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“It’s a very suspicious thing for a large company to stop complying with a federal law that they were complying with for over a decade,” Webbert said.
Meanwhile, the new IBM waiver bars workers from joining together to fight the company in court or through arbitration, lawyers say.
But it’s very hard for an individual employee to bring a case against a large company like IBM, and for most laid-off workers, “the only chance you have of winning is to come together and pool your resources,” Webbert said. “That’s why they (IBM) said you can’t bring a collective action.”
Series of claims
This latest age discrimination claim follows others filed against IBM.
In September, a class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court on behalf of three IBM employees. Last May, IBM was sued by a 60-year-old employee from Texas.
The lawsuit followed an investigative report by ProPublica and Mother Jones, which alleged that, over five years, IBM had targeted its older American employees for layoffs, allegations which IBM denies.
Wednesday’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of Steven Estle of Colorado, employed 34 years at IBM; Margaret Ahlders of Colorado, 33 years; Lance Salonia of Washington, D.C., 10 years; and Cheryl Witmer of Colorado, 34 years.
All four were over the age of 55 when they were laid off in 2016.
In addition to the federal lawsuit, the four plaintiffs also filed a demand for an arbitration of their collective age discrimination claims.
Follow Nina Schutzman on Twitter: @pojonschutzman
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