90 age-discrimination suits reflect growing issue for tech

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90 age-discrimination suits reflect growing issue for tech

The graying workforce in Silicon Valley is voicing its displeasure about ageism – in court.

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90 age-discrimination suits reflect growing issue for tech

Jon Swartz , USA TODAY 8:02 a.m. EST November 22, 2016
636110910575234904-Zabeen-Ismail-Youngs-3.jpg

Zabeen Ismail-Youngs says her employer, Genentech, laid her off because she was older and sick.(Photo: Zabeen Ismail, for USA TODAY)

SAN FRANCISCO — Tech’s graying workforce is increasingly voicing its displeasure about ageism – in court.

Since 2012, 90 age-related lawsuits have been filed against a dozen top tech companies in Silicon Valley, according to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), which provided the list of actions to USA TODAY. The suits were filed in California, where the companies are based and a vast majority of their employees are located.

With 28 such suits since May 2013, Hewlett-Packard is most likely to spend the most time in court. Cisco Systems is named as defendant in 11 suits, followed by Apple (9), Google (8), and Oracle (7) and Genentech (7). Yahoo, Intel, LinkedIn, Facebook, Tesla Motors and Twitter were also sued. Most claim wrongful termination, while a smattering cited hiring or promotion.

Plaintiffs' names were omitted because the DFEH, a state civil rights agency, does not provide them to third parties.

The rash of suits isn't surprising to those in Silicon Valley. Legal experts and employees say a confluence of factors have deepened the problem: an aging workforce of people who want to, and have to, work longer; a spike in mergers and restructurings that have led companies to shed tens of thousands of workers; and evolving skill sets that have marginalized some workers and put a premium on others.

Layoffs, reorganizations and revamped performance reviews are often reasons for the lawsuits, a residue of an increase in mergers and acquisitions over the last few years that have created “massive redundancy requiring consolidation,” says Dan McCoy, co-chair of the employment practices group at Fenwick & West, a law firm in Silicon Valley.

Dan McCoy is a partner in Fenwick & West's Litigation

Dan McCoy is a partner in Fenwick & West's Litigation Group, with expertise in employment practices. (Photo: Fenwick & West, for USA TODAY)

"An aging workforce has made this a concern for employees," says McCoy. The onus in such suits is on the plaintiff, who has to prove deliberate intent on the behalf of employers.

The spate of suits are a reminder that Silicon Valley's tendency to celebrate youth and newness can also veer into charges of discrimination based on age. It's a problem that could deepen as companies pursue M&A activity and spin-offs. As established companies like HP, Oracle and Cisco snap up specialized companies to expand their business in newer fields such as cloud computing, the Internet of Things and augmented reality, they increasingly face the tricky task of streamlining operations and re-evaluating which employees to retain.

Most won't discuss the topic of how these shifts impact the average age of their employees.

Hewlett Packard offers a prime example. It has laid off 85,000 people since 2012 after reorganizations and splitting into two companies, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and HP Inc., in 2015. Descendant HPE also made some acquisitions: agreeing to pay $275 million for SGI, a play on big-data analytics, and buying analytics start-up Rasa Networks.

Four former HP employees claim age discrimination in a lawsuit filed in August that alleges they were purged unfairly as part of a major restructuring involving tens of thousands of layoffs. The proposed class-action suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif., on Aug. 18, claims the technology giant "made it a priority to transform itself from an 'old' company into a 'younger' operation."

The plaintiffs — Donna Forsyth, 62, of Washington; Sidney Staton, 54 of California; Arun Vatturi, 52, of California; and Dan Weiland, 63, of Texas — say they were laid off when HP instituted a Workplace Reduction Plan that allegedly targeted older workers after the computer services and printer maker announced 27,000 jobs cuts in 2012, according to the lawsuit.

Next year, Google faces a scheduled trial alleging age bias in hiring. "How does age factor into one’s Googleyness? Plaintiffs Cheryl Fillekes and Robert Heath allege that it plays a significant role," begins a lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Jose in October, citing the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

HP and Google have declined the claims, and intend to defend themselves in court.

Cisco and Facebook had no comment. Oracle declined comment because it says it is in a quiet financial period.

Tougher and tougher to find a job

Adam Boettiger has applied for 125 jobs in tech without

Adam Boettiger has applied for 125 jobs in tech without success. (Photo: Adam Boettiger, for USA TODAY)

Adam Boettiger, a 50-year-old military veteran in Portland, Ore., says he was one of the first people to specialize in digital marketing in the 1990s. But over the last few years, it’s gotten tougher and tougher for him to find a job.

“I’m now unemployable in an industry I helped create, which is very, very troublesome,” says Boettiger, who has applied for 125 jobs in marketing and e-commerce over the past few months. “I’m often told I have too much experience. They rarely give any feedback, probably out of fear of being sued.”

"I feel it every day, but it's subtle," says Jeanne Locke Alford, 59, a communications specialist for 35 years based in Daly City, Calif. "It's not overt, but decisions are made before the first question is raised in a job interview."

"The issue will continue to grow, with baby boomers getting older and more people working longer because they can't afford to retire early," she says.

For nearly two decades, Zabeen Ismail-Youngs said she was a valued quality-assurance employee at Genentech. She earned stellar reviews and numerous awards.

Then she got sick, old — and was fired, she claims.

When Ismail-Youngs was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 47 in March 2012, the South San Francisco, Calif.-based biotech company decided she wasn't as valuable anymore, she says. Her job was terminated nine months later.

"Cancer wasn't too hard for me, but losing my job was," says Ismail-Youngs, who is now 52 and lives in Sausalito. "I was a good person and I put so much heart and soul into my work. My heart sunk" when I was laid off, she said. She did not sue Genentech because, she said, she was too sick.

"Genentech is proud to hire people of many different ages, experiences and backgrounds based on their qualifications and how their skills match a given position," Genentech said in a email statement to USA TODAY. "The majority of Genentech employees are over the age of 40."

Jim Morrison reinvented his work skills to adapt to

Jim Morrison reinvented his work skills to adapt to the digital age. (Photo: Jim Morrison, for USA TODAY)

The median age of an American worker is 42. At Facebook it's 29, Google 30, Apple 31, Amazon 30 and Microsoft 33, according to research firm PayScale.

While non-tech industries grapple with charges of ageism, the calculus is uniquely different in tech. It is built on ideas, constantly evolving strategies and an influx of young, brilliant minds. Like a major sports franchise, established companies and start-ups consider themselves only as good as their talent. And when another talent comes along, it can sometimes make the older athlete/engineer/executive expendable.

Changing times and strategies often require changing job skills. Some longtime employees say they have transitioned as well, and shrug off concerns of ageism.

"You have to reinvent yourself," says Jim Morrison, 63, who left a 25-year career in radio during the 2007 economic crash to start anew in digital media strategy. He now consults for BMW North America, Road Atlanta, a road course, and others.

"Change is everywhere and is inevitable," says John Luis, 55, a 30-year veteran in finance and industrial engineering in Silicon Valley. "It's been that way in my 30 years in the business. Get used to it."

Follow USA TODAY San Francisco Bureau Chief Jon Swartz @jswartz on Twitter.

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