Concerned that social media sites are fostering age discrimination by allowing companies to target employment advertisements to younger users, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is seeking answers from Facebook, Google and LinkedIn about what they are doing to prevent bias against older workers.
In a joint letter with U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, D-Penn., the Maine Republican told the three social media firms that “by targeting employment advertisements to specific age groups, certain users may be denied the ability to view job opportunities.”
They expressed concern and asked each firm to provide detailed information by the end of the month to the Senate Aging Committee.
The move follows a story by ProPublica and The New York Times last month that many of the country’s top employers, including Facebook, use age to help narrow the audience that sees their online advertising for open positions.
Collins, chairwoman of the panel on aging, and Casey said in their letter that age discrimination “continues to occur, and changes in technology and the methods employers use to recruit, hire and manage workers have introduced new avenues by which employers may engage in illegal conduct.”
“As America’s workforce continues to age,” they wrote, “it is imperative that protections for older workers are enforced and updated when necessary.”
Federal law prohibits age discrimination in hiring and employment of workers who are older than 40.
The social media firms have denied doing anything illegal or improper. They point to a 1996 law that gives them immunity for posts made online by users, though it is not clear that the statute would apply for paid ads.
Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer for the American Association of Retired Persons, said in a statement Friday that her organization, which is devoted to protecting seniors, is concerned.
“It appears age discrimination is alive and well in the digital era, as social media sites are now said to be enabling employers to discriminate against older applicants,” she said.
“This would mean the methods of discrimination have changed and its tools now include algorithms, drop-down boxes and pattern recognition,” all tools she said could be used to help older Americans rather than denying them opportunity.
LeaMond said that “when it comes to job recruitment, AARP believes all Americans deserve a level playing field, and we want to work with all those who share our commitment.”
She urged Congress to pass the Older Workers Against Discrimination Act – proposed by Casey, Collins and U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa – as a way to lend a hand.
Their proposal would restore the protections of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act that were undermined by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2009. In that decision, the court determined that workers who allege age discrimination must meet a higher burden of proof than those alleging discrimination based on race, sex, religion or national origin.
The Communications Workers of America have filed a lawsuit against several firms that relied on discriminatory advertisements.
In the lawsuit, the union claims it has “discovered that hundreds of employers and employment agencies are illegally targeting their employment ads on Facebook to exclude older workers who fall outside specified age ranges (such as ages 18 to 40, or ages 22 to 45), purposely preventing these older workers from seeing the ads or pursuing job opportunities.”
Christine Owens, executive director of the nonprofit National Employment Law Project, last week applauded the union and three workers who filed the lawsuit against companies that use age-based ads to “screen out wide swaths of the workforce based on age.”
She said the practice uncovered by ProPublica, The New York Times and the union amounts to just “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to “discriminatory redlining.”
“Fifty years after the passage of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, at a moment when workers are struggling to make ends meet, biased corporate screening based on age, gender and race cannot be allowed to continue,” Owens said.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Robert Casey of Pennsylvania (U.S. Senate Aging Committee photo)