Older, Wiser...and Unemployed

Israelis are living longer, but older workers are finding systematic age discrimination in the workforce makes it near impossible to stay employed.

By ZIV HELLMAN
July 17, 2011 13:40
Unemployed resident visits the employment office

Unemployed resident visits the employment office. (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/FLASH 90)

 
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Shraga Koren was an exemplary worker, praised for his expertise and knowledge running computer systems at Wingate College. When he was called to a meeting with the deputy director of the college in February 2010, the last thing he expected was that the meeting would begin by his being asked, point blank, “How old are you?"

Koren, now aged 61, admitted that he had lied about his age when he had applied for the job three years earlier. He had left a long-term position at IBM in 2006, after accepting a generous severance package, expecting to land a new job within a handful of weeks. “But eight months went by,” he recalls, “with no one even responding to my applications. I am raising three children, and without a steady income I was struggling. It took me a while, but eventually I understood what was happening. I ‘reduced’ the age I wrote on my CV by ten years, and suddenly job offers came flying in.”

Koren was thrilled to accept a job offer from the college, and he tells The Report that he happily put in overtime hours for the sake of doing the best possible work for his new employer. When he was called in to reveal his true age, he expected that after giving an explanation for why he had lied about his age and offering an apology, the matter would quickly be forgotten. To his shock, he was immediately fired from his job.

A labor court subsequently denied Koren’s request that he be reinstated to his job. Although the decision has been appealed to a higher court, on the grounds that since age cannot by law be a consideration for hiring purposes to begin with, lying about it cannot be grounds for dismissal, Koren remains unemployed and is bitter about the experience. “The extent of discrimination against older job seekers,” he says, “is staggering, and harmful to the economy. Something has to be done.”

Ruth Sinai, who chairs the 50-Plus-Minus Association, a Tel Aviv-based nonprofit organization devoted to assisting older workers find employment, agrees that prejudice against middle-aged and older job seekers is an endemic problem. “Employers sometimes say that they want ‘dynamic’ workers, who are professionally ‘up to date,’ code words for ‘only the young may apply,’” says Sinai. “We see workers as young as 45 running up against discrimination in hiring due solely to their age. But a 45- or 50-year-old who is boxed out of the job market then faces years and years of unemployment until he or she is eligible for a pension and old-age benefits. What are people supposed to do then?”

It is not only anecdotes that reveal prejudices against older job seekers. According to figures gathered by the Central Bureau of Statistics, workforce participation among adults aged 25 to 54 has averaged between 75 percent to 78 percent in recent years, while the comparable figure for the ages 55 to 64 is only 64 percent. “Even that figure hides a lot of underemployment,” says Sinai. “The bureau counts a person as ‘participating in the workforce’ even if he or she works as little as one hour in a given week. Even the bureau’s own classification of the ages 25 to 54 as ‘prime working years’ reveals a prejudice against workers who are 55 and older.”

At the same time, there have been increasing efforts in recent years to change negative attitudes toward older workers, both by nonprofit organizations such as 50-Plus-Minus, and by enforcement arms of the government. Lawsuits against discriminating employers have proliferated. Examples include a suit filed against a municipality for allegedly telling an employment agency it did not want to hire anyone over 35 for a position it was advertising and a suit against a network of kindergartens for systematically firing teachers over the age of 48.



Age discrimination in hiring, promotion, training, work conditions, dismissal, severance pay and retirement benefits is explicitly prohibited by law since the Equal Opportunities in Employment Law was passed in 1988. Clause 2 of that law, which applies to any workplace of six or more employees, includes age in 14 specific categories of discrimination that are outlawed, which, in addition to age, include religion, race, parenthood, fertility treatment, pregnancy, sexual orientation, sex, nationality, country of origin, political views, and military reserve duty.

The passage of a law alone, however, usually cannot on its own change entrenched attitudes and behaviors. The Knesset, recognizing the fact that without proactive efforts to enforce anti-discrimination laws they may remain relatively dead letters, created the Commission for Equal Opportunity at Work in 2005. The commission, which is a unit within the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, is charged with overseeing the civil law implementation and advancement of equal opportunity laws in the workplace, as well as promoting equal opportunity norms in the general public, among employees and employers. It serves as a source of information on equal opportunity employment issues and as an address for complaints, in addition to being a source of legal counsel to the government and the Knesset on equal opportunity employment law.

“The largest number of complaints we receive involve pregnant women losing their jobs,” says Tziona Koenig-Yair, the commission’s chief executive. “But age discrimination is the next most frequent complaint.”

The commission issues pamphlets, aimed at employees and employers, with advice on how to get to the desired result. It conducts surveys and runs informational campaigns and training seminars in places of work, explaining the law and its interpretation to both employees and employers.

Want ads, for example, should detail only the professional requirements of the offered job. Advertisements that specify that only young applicants are welcome are forbidden. It was once commonplace, for example, to see job opening advertisements for security-related jobs in the military, police and penal system openly state that the jobs were available only to candidates up to the age of 35, but a High Court ruling in 1997 explicitly forbade using qualifications not directly related to “the character and essence” of job offerings, including age, in hiring criteria.

Job interview questions may also be scrutinized carefully. “It is not entirely accurate to say that asking a job candidate his or her age is illegal,” Koenig-Yair tells The Report. “But a potential employer who directly inquires about age then shifts the burden on to him to show that age was not a factor in denying the applicant a job. And that can be significant.” A discriminatory comment in a job interview, such as openly stating that a candidate’s age or sex is unsuitable for the offered job position, can cost a potential employer a large sum of money if there is an ensuing civil suit.

Employment discrimination can include many aspects beyond hiring issues. Examples of discriminatory work environments can include assigning certain shift hours only to older workers, or restricting job tasks that involve public appearances solely to young women. Salary differentials, denying workers promotions and dismissals can obviously be discriminatory, if they are based on age or other considerations that are not purely work-related, but there are more subtle ways of discriminating.

“We are now looking closely at pressures placed on workers to accept early retirement,” says Koenig-Yair. “There are cases in which workers in their fifties are pushed to accept an early retirement package. That can be a way for a place of work to push out older employees.”

There is a compulsory retirement age in Israel, currently set at 67 for men and 62 for women, at which an employer may require an employee to retire. This does not contravene the Equal Opportunities in Employment Law, because the compulsory retirement age was explicitly given legal force by a separate law.

Similar laws exist in many countries, but Britain recently scrapped its compulsory retirement law, as of April 2011, on the grounds that such a law inherently discriminates by age. Employers in Britain will still be able to establish contractual retirement age agreements with workers, but such agreements will be open to being challenged as constituting age discrimination. The staff at Israel’s Commission for Equal Opportunity at Work are currently carefully studying the British example.

According to court rulings, collective agreements may not be used to circumvent age-discrimination laws. The High Court, for example, in 1995 refused to uphold a collective bargaining agreement achieved between El Al employees and the airline company that required flight attendants to retire at age 60. The justices were especially troubled by the fact that the agreement explicitly discriminated between pilots, who were permitted to keep working past age 60, and flight attendants, and that a perceived need for a “youthful appearance” among attendants was used as a justification for that discrimination.

“We have conducted conferences with employers,” says Koenig-Yair, “to discuss aspects relating to non-discrimination in workplaces. Sometimes they have aired difficulties they have faced, but many of them understand that non-discrimination is a way to enhance economic growth.”

The commission is more than just a source of information on equality law. It has the authority to conduct civil lawsuits against discriminatory employers. “If we receive a complaint and feel that the case is strong enough, and can set a precedent, we certainly do take it to court,” says Koenig-Yair. “There are cases where the employers make it easy for us, such as when they put in writing a reason for not accepting a job applicant in violation of the law, due to, for example, age or ethnic background [and so forth].”

The handling of a complaint regarding employment discrimination, for any reason, begins with an initial consultation with the complainant, which can take place at one of the commission’s regional offices, in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and Beersheba. This may be followed by further fact-gathering, and if warranted a place of employment, whether public or private, may be ordered to provide the commission with relevant data, including the salary structure of the entire corporation or institution, which can then further be used as evidence in a lawsuit in court.

Even in cases when the commission is not itself the initiator of a lawsuit, it may provide legal counsel to complainants, and submit legal opinions in court in an amicus role.

Koenig-Yair, who came to Israel as a child from Brooklyn, New York, brings passion and commitment to her job heading the commission. A Hebrew University-trained lawyer, she was appointed to the commission after working for women’s advocacy groups. One of the aspects of the job about which she is most excited is the commission’s cooperation with similar bodies in the European Union, with members learning from experiences and precedents in different countries, bringing about international harmonization in anti-discrimination attitudes in the workplace.

The Israel commission has been “twinned” with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. Under the twinning arrangement, employees of the Israeli commission have visited Equality House, where the Northern Ireland Equality Commission is located, and a representative from Northern Ireland has been working for the past 18 months in the offices of the Israeli commission in Jerusalem. Both parties tell The Report that they have gained a lot in learning from each other’s challenges and experiences.

In the first week of July, visitors from the equality commissions of several countries, including Belgium, Denmark, Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and Ireland, attended an international “strategic planning” conference on combating work discrimination in the commission’s national office in Jerusalem.

Conference participants tell The Report that they all contend with age discrimination in employment in their home countries, with varying degrees of success against a range of employers, from small and medium-sized businesses to large multi-nationals. Another topic that was emphasized by participants is the importance of maintaining the independence of a country’s equality commission from government interference. The fact that Israel’s Commission for Equal Opportunity at Work is a unit entirely within a government ministry, the Ministry for Industry, Trade and Labor, appears problematic in this light.

"Every Western country is looking for a solution to the problem of an aging population,” notes Sinai. “In Israel, this issue is not given much consideration, because the demographic pyramid here has not yet flipped – we still have a good ratio of working adults to retired workers. Nonetheless, the fact is that the 45 and older part of the population in Israel is currently the most rapidly growing sector of the population.”

The 50-Plus-Minus Association was established in the year 2000. Its stated goals include uprooting prejudice and discrimination against older workers and job seekers, and to work with government, the private sector and the public to find ways of enabling every person, no matter what age, to exercise the right to finding gainful employment. It assists unemployed individuals aged 45 and over to find jobs, either as employees or to start self-employed businesses, by conducting training sessions, providing advice and counsel to job seekers, and approaching potential employees in attempts to match job seekers with open positions.

According to Sinai, about half of the people who turn to her association for assistance have university degrees and professional experience, yet still face significant hurdles. The association gets more applications from men than from women, and the ages that need the most acute assistance are 55 and above.

“One of the hardest hurdles is getting past the initial screening of human resource departments,” says Sinai. “Even if an applicant does not state his or her age on a CV, it can be guessed by details in the CV, and many of those CVs then find their way straight to the bins.”

Sinai was for many years a journalist at the “Haaretz” daily newspaper, and has for the past year served, in a voluntary capacity, as head of the 50-Plus-Minus Association. She regards one of the most important aspects of the association’s efforts to be the direct contacts it makes with potential employers, explaining to them the benefits of hiring older workers.

“They bring so much experience with them, in specific professions and in general life experience,” says Sinai. “They usually do not have small children they are still raising, they are more stable, and more likely to stick long-term to a job, because they tend not to ‘hop’ from one job to another.”

Individuals who approach the association for assistance go through an “intake” process, in which they are interviewed extensively by the association, who take stock of the applicant’s experience and work goals. The association then tries to match the applicant with an appropriate employer.

“We are different from most employment agencies,” says Sinai, “because our main client is not the employer, it is the job applicant. We don’t get paid by companies or represent their interests. We exist to help older workers.”

“I am actually often surprised at how accepting some employers are when we approach them,” says Sinai. “Many employers now understand that it is better for their business to have a diversified workforce, and that includes having diverse ages among employees. There are also ratings agencies now that rate corporations on their ‘corporate responsibilities,’ taking into account contributions to the community, environmental awareness, fairness to employees and customers. Companies take these ratings seriously, and one of the things that are checked now in these ratings is corporate attitude towards older job applicants.”

The association recently created a sister organization, focusing specifically on the needs of workers who are 60 and older. “The retirement age in Israel [for men] is now 67, and there are already efforts being made to raise it to 69,” says Sinai. “It could eventually be raised past 70. Given that, and demographic trends, we need to be prepared to give that age group job opportunities just as much as other workers.”

Koren, in his home in Kfar Yona, remains unimpressed by claims that attitudes towards older workers are slowly changing. In response to a request for comment on Koren’s dismissal, Shlomo Ben-Gal, Wingate College’s vice president, tells The Report what was at issue was not his age, but his deliberate lying. “Age played no role in our decision to terminate [Koren’s] employment,” Ben-Gal writes in an email message.

Koren, however, is still fuming. “I have been unemployed since February 2010, and I simply cannot get a job,” he complains. “I am as alert and competent as ever. I could put in at least another six or seven years in a high-tech job before retiring, and given the pace of the industry, a great deal can be accomplished in that many years. But I have friends and relatives in their late thirties and early forties who are already facing difficulties finding jobs in high-tech. Woe to us if that is the attitude towards experienced workers that our hightech industry has.”

Koren is so dejected by what he has seen and experienced that he advocates considering affirmative action plans for older workers. “I never thought I would say this,” he tells The Report, “but that may be the only way to change things. The government has programs to assist young people just out of army service get started in the workforce by actually giving employers money, if they hire them. Do the same for elderly workers; pay companies to hire them. Then maybe attitudes will start changing.”

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