Texas Roadhouse restaurants reportedly rejected applicants for jobs as waiters and bartenders by telling them things like, "We think you are a little too old to work here." It needed greeters, it said, but only "young, hot ones who are 'chipper'." Comments like these, documented in a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, have prompted a lawsuit charging age discrimination.
"It's a nationwide pattern of age discrimination," EEOC senior trial attorney Markus Penzel tells ABC News. The commission's suit, he says, rests on "anecdotal evidence—people who said and heard things," on the company's own documents, including in-house training videos, and on statistical analysis.
According to the EEOC, only 1.9 percent of so-called 'front of the house' employees (greeters, waiters, bartenders, etc.) at Texas Roadhouse are aged 40 or older. By federal law, persons in that age group constitute are a class protected from age discrimination. The percentage, says the EEOC, is "well below" the percentage in the general population at the restaurants' locations and well below the percentage in the pool of applicants seeking jobs from Texas Roadhouse.
Roadhouse spokesman Travis Doster, responding to the lawsuit, told ABC News: "Texas Roadhouse is an equal opportunity employer. We deny the allegations and will defend against these claims in court."
Penzel says his agency has witnessed an increase in age discrimination complaints during the current economic downturn. In November, EEOC hearings on the impact of the economy on older workers found that workers 55-and-up spend far more time searching for work than do younger workers and are jobless far longer. Older workers have suffered "the longest spell of high unemployment" seen in the past 60 years.
Says EEOC general counsel P. David Lopez, "It's important in this difficult economic climate that we redouble our nation's commitment to the principle of nondiscrimination in the workplace, to ensure that hiring decisions are based on abilities, not age."
New Jersey attorney Glenn Savits, of Green, Savits & Lorenzo in Morristown, specializes in age discrimination suits. He views the Roadhouse case as "disturbing," especially at a time when finding jobs is getting tougher and tougher. "It's pure age discrimination," he says.
Youth is not a bona fide requirement for waiting tables or greeting, Savits says. He rejects the notion that older workers are more costly--that being more experienced, they must always command higher wages, and thus be less attractive to employers: "There's no reason a company can't offer an older person the same money" as somebody right out of college. "So, that's no excuse."
The Roadhouse case hardly stands alone. Other recent, high-profile cases alleging age discrimination include a class action suit brought against Quest Diagnostics by Savits, and a suit against Google brought on behalf of a fired 54-year old computer executive by California attorney Barry Bunshoft of Duane Morris LLP in San Francisco.
Google hired computer exec Brian Reid in 2002 when he was 52. This put Reid, by virtue of his age, at odds with most of Google's workforce, which tends toward people directly out of college. Google fired Reid when he was 54.