Fired For Being Too Old: Unfair or Good Business?

Radio personality Bruce Morrow is a legend who has been on the air for decades. When the Beatles came to America in 1965 and appeared at New York's Shea stadium, "Cousin Brucie" introduced them, and in the 1980s, Morrow was credited with helping push oldies station WCBS-FM to number one. But when WCBS-FM decided it wanted more music and less talk three years ago, Morrow was abruptly fired.

Kansas City DJs Max Floyd and Tanna Guthrie got the same bad news this year when they were fired from 99.7 KY.

"When they want you to go, they really want you to go," Guthrie said. Max Floyd, the veteran DJ who is the subject of the documentary "Rock and Roll General: The Max Floyd Story," said they were given the news without warning after their show.

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Both believed they were fired for being too old, even though the station said the reason for the firing was because they were changing formats from classic rock to adult alternative. Guthrie doesn't understand why changing music meant the station had to change DJs.

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"Why couldn't they keep us?" Guthrie asked. "We've been there, been loyal with the company, and they didn't change the music a lot."

Guthrie and Floyd hired lawyer Brian Costello and filed a complaint with the equal employment opportunity commission and plan to sue the radio station for age discrimination. These types of lawsuits have become more and more commonplace.

Age Discrimination Is 'Like a Disease'

George Hayes, a 54-year-old from New Jersey, is suing the global advertising agency McCann Erickson for age discrimination.

"Any company can fire you when there's a reason," Hayes said. "There didn't seem to be any reason other than how old I was."

Hayes hired Murray Schwartz, an attorney who specializes in employment law. He's won millions suing companies for age discrimination, though companies seldom say age was the reason. Schwartz believes many companies "keep it a secret," and that age discrimination is "like a disease."

McCann Erickson denies that Hayes was fired because of his age. But Schwartz and Hayes are suing McCann Erickson for $30 million.

"This is not right," Hayes said of his firing. "I'm young, I don't feel old. I feel like I can contribute all the time."

Can Older Workers Compete?

Murray Schwartz is convinced that older people can do the job just as well as younger people and believes that employment age discrimination laws are a crucial protection for older workers.

But some argue that sometimes older people ought to be fired, saying younger workers tend to have more energy, are able to put in more hours, and are generally more tech-savvy than their older counterparts. Schwartz doesn't think these are valid reasons to fire someone based on age.

"A company shouldn't be able to come and say 'I think a 36-year-old fellow would do it better than the 52-year-old fellow,'" Schwartz said.

After he was fired, Cousin Brucie didn't look for a lawyer-- he looked for another job, which he soon found at Sirius radio. Morrow has written the book "Doo Wop: The Music, the Times, the Era" and has owned some radio stations. Ownership gave him a new perspective and he now thinks that older people sometimes need to get fired.

Morrow has fired several disc jockeys and believes "it's part of this business."

"We are in a business of change. Many people on the radio station that have worked there 15, 20 years don't fit there anymore," Morrow said. "They might now sound age-wise proper for the format."

Taking Age Into Consideration

There's no denying that there is a cost-cutting benefit to replacing an older worker with a younger worker who will make less money. But protecting older workers interferes with what's called creative destruction, that tearing down and building up again that allows businesses to thrive. Firing some workers often creates opportunity for others.

Roger Pilon, vice president of legal affairs for the libertarian Cato Institute, thinks that businesses just need to do what's best for them in order to stay afloat.

"People have to be free to run their own businesses because if they're not, they could find themselves going out of business in the blink of an eye," Pilon said.

"Suppose you're an Italian restaurateur and you want to have only Italian men as your waiters because that's the ambience you want in your restaurant," Pilon posed. "Shouldn't you be able to do that?"

Apparently not. In the 1990s, the U.S. government tried to force Hooters, the restaurant chain famous for sexy waitresses, to hire men to wait on customers. Only after Hooters mocked the government by running ads showing what a Hooter's man would look like -- a burly, unshaven hooters manager in a wig, tight shirt and shorts modeled for the ad -- did the government drop its case.

Pilon argues that a business should be free to run itself the way it wants to, but lawyers like Schwartz disagree.

"Who has the right to say that you should stop working when you're 50 or 52 or 53? The boss?" Schwartz asked.

Why not the boss? It's the boss's money. Give me a break.