In summer 2013, Spirit AeroSystems Holdings - an airplane company that spawned from Boeing’s sale of its Wichita division in 2005 - laid off 360 workers.
While this reduction in force seemed at first to be for competitive reasons, a recent lawsuit by 70 former employees claims that up to 164 of the employees who were let go were over the age of 40 and many of them - or their spouses - had health related issues.
This suggests, the workers claim, that Spirit AeroSystems is intentionally discriminating against older and sicker workers, groups that are protected by federal discrimination laws.
“The workers brought the suit after discovering that nearly half — or 164 — of those in the 2013 layoffs were 40 or older, the age that initiates federal age discrimination law protections,” reports Elizabeth Olson from The New York Times.
“And workers charge that they were singled out, in addition, because either they or their spouses had serious medical conditions.”
Spirit says that these charges are not true, claiming that the reductions were all for job-related reasons.
“We are confident the evidence in this case will show Spirit is compliant with the law in its employment practices,” said Fred Malley, Spirit’s spokesperson, according to The Times.
Obviously, the charges levied against Spirit have yet to be weighed in court. Right now, the charges need to first be passed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who will check the lawsuits validity before proceeding to the Federal District Court in Wichita.
The sad fact of the matter is that these cases are starting to spring up more and more as the workforce ages.
Right now, Baby Boomers are still a large part of the workforce. In fact, their exit from many industries is such a big deal that many in HR circles call it the Silver Tsunami.
Since the Baby Boomer generation spans roughly 10 years - those born between 1954 and 1964 - these retirements from various industries are staggered. Also, many Baby Boomers are healthier than the generations who came before them, causing many Boomers to remain working because they are physically and mentally able.
So, what’s happening in these organizations who have senior staff who are also up there in age?
Well, these organizations see a problem: older workers can cause stagnation when they refuse to retire. This common workforce planning problem has solutions that are well within the law and also help senior staffers transition to either retirement or other rules.
The weird thing is that many companies are going about this shift in the absolute wrong way, triggering waves of discrimination lawsuits.
“In recent years, the number of filings has hovered in the 21,000 range, and age discrimination accounts for nearly a quarter of the overall complaints filed with the agency, which also pursues charges of discrimination against a job applicant or employee on the basis of a person’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability or genetic information.”
Why would an HR department layoff countless workers to restructure their workforce without first holding a voluntary round of layoffs or even implementing a voluntary retirement program? Why not set up these workers for future success in other fields instead of kicking them out on their own?
Severance agreements, outplacement services, and retirement lifestyle planning given out to outbound workers help reduce the risk of lawsuits and also keep reputations in check at the same time.
At the end of the day, though, treating people like cost centers is a poor management strategy that even those who have never been in an executive-level meeting can attest to.
It will take time to see how the Spirit AeroSystems case will turn out, but regardless of the outcome of the case, the whole ordeal should serve as a cautionary tale to other HR departments across the country.