Unemployment Jumps to 9.4 Percent, Highest Level Since August, 1983

It's a level not seen in a quarter century.

ByABC News
June 4, 2009, 2:37 PM

June 5, 2009— -- The nation's unemployment rate climbed in May to 9.4 percent, the highest it's been since August of 1983.

The Labor Department this morning announced that another 345,000 Americans lost their jobs last month, pushing the unemployment rate up from 8.9 percent in April. Economists had expected a loss of 550,000 jobs and the news that significantly less were lost initially shot the stock market up.

The percentage of people without jobs in this country is now at the highest point in nearly 26 years. Every month since January 2008 we have seen jobs disappear.

So far the economy has shed 6 million jobs since the recession started push employers to start handing out pink slips.

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But not all firings are equal and as this recession prolongs many workers are fighting back, especially older people who believe they have been discriminated against.

"We don't know for sure why complaints are increasing. We're certainly seeing increases," said Christine Saah Nazer, a spokeswoman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "We can speculate that it has to do with economic conditions, the poor economy and an increase in layoffs."

The commission received an unprecedented 95,402 complaints during a 12-month period ending in October. That's up 15 percent from the prior year. Of those, 24,582 are charges of age discrimination, a massive 29 percent increase.

Barbara Polahmius said she devoted 13 years to a small California health care agency -- getting rave reviews for her performance, mentoring other employees and taking on extra tasks that weren't part of her job description.

But when the nonprofit was taken over by a large conglomerate eager to cut costs, she was the first to go.

"I absolutely believe it was my age," she previously told ABCNews.com. "We were the ones who know about hard work and have accumulated a lifetime of knowledge.

"I couldn't prove it, but I just felt that I was going to be the one they decided to ask to leave," said Polahmius, who has twice survived cancer and is disabled with fibromyalgia. "My health care costs were not inconsiderable."

The minimum age to file an age discrimination complaint with the EEOC is 40.

Some 140 recently laid off workers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which develops weapons for the military, have filed suit claiming that 94 percent of workers furloughed at the end of May were over 40 years old.

"It's unfortunate that the Lawrence Livermore Lab, the University of California and Bechtel Corporation would treat their employees in a discriminatory manner. I don't think the Department of Energy, with whom they contract, would approve of such conduct. These entities should be setting the highest standards of fairness in the workplace, not the lowest," said Gary Gwilliam, attorney for the former employees in a statement.

"The laboratory's workforce restructuring was a very painful but unavoidable event that was precipitated by a number of economic factors including a reduction in federal funding," said Jim Bono a lab spokesman in a statement.

"Lawrence Livermore Laboratory has always regarded its employees as its greatest asset. Laboratory management was very mindful of the economic difficulties for any employee who may be subject to the restructuring and offered a voluntary separation program. It was the hope of the laboratory that 750 employees would seek to exercise this program, thus negating the need for involuntary layoffs. Unfortunately, only 216 employees enrolled in the program, which prompted the need for the Involuntary Separation Plan," he said.

The vast majority of the employees who worked at the Lab were older than 40.

On the other side of the country in Florida, Helene Maticic, who goes by Holly, became one of the thousands of people to recently file an age discrimination complaint.

The 73-year-old Florida resident worked five years in the produce department at the Whole Foods Market in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She was fired in June of 2008 "for reasons other than misconduct connected with the work," according to a November 2008 decision by the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation.

Or in her words: "This was flagrant age discrimination," Maticic told ABC News. "I know they wanted a younger worker. I know I was replaced by someone younger."

Maticic said the store manager would make her climb ladders to hang signs. She was working six hours a day. He raised it to eight and gave her a night shift.

"I did everything I was asked to whether it was light or heavy. I came in on time, I didn't complain," she said.