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

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

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.

How Is the Economy Treating You? Share Your Story With ABC News

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.

Older Workers Facing Layoffs

When she asked for reduced hours, she recalled, "The manager would say things like `Poor holly, she's getting old, we've got to take special care of her.'"

Then Maticic had a foot problem and took an approved medical leave in April, she said.

Her return to work was supposed to be June 9, 2008. A few days before, she sent word that she was soon ready to return to work.

"For a week, I called and sent e-mails and went to the store to find out what my schedule was but the manager put me off and wouldn't tell me when I could come back," Maticic said.

She kept going in, but was not put to work.

"I finally got hold of the manager and was told I was terminated for not coming to work. I was terminated for failure to come to work. What baloney, I was trying for a week to come back," Maticic said.

Her unemployment has since run out and she has had a hard time finding a new job.

"I'm 73. I have grey hair. People are looking for young people. I understand," Maticic said. "But then they hire young people and they find out young people don't do as good a job and don't give damn."

Whole Foods spokeswoman Libba Letton said can't comment specifically about Maticic's case except that it is the grocery-store chain's position that age was not a factor in her dismissal.

"We have a reputation for having a really unique culture. Since our first little grocery store 30 years ago, we've always believed strongly that direct and open communication and respect and love for the individual and self-empowerment, that those are the things we wanted to base our culture on," Letton said. "As our company has grown, we've continued to let those values guide us. It just goes against everything that we are that we would discriminate based on anything like that."

Letton said that at the time of Maticic's dismissal, that Florida store had 181 part-time and full-time employees. (She said the majority were full time, which Whole Foods considers anybody who works 30 hours or more a week.)

Of those 181 workers, 14 were between the ages of 60 and 74, 32 were between 50 and 59 and 46 were between 40 and 49. That means that 45 percent of the workforce at that one store was over the age of 40.

Spike in Jobless Rate and Employment Complaints

"The numbers speak for themselves," she said. "We don't discriminate based on age. How could we?"

While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says it saw a spike in all types of complaints, charges based on age and retaliation saw the largest annual increases, while allegations based on race and sex continued as the most-frequently filed charges.

The economy appears to be a major reason but the EEOC also says it could be from shifting workforce demographics as well as a greater awareness by employees of the law and the commission itself doing a better job of processing complaints.

Janice Goodman, a New York labor lawyer, said she is seeing a lot of clients because of the layoffs.

"A very large percentage of those are older workers," Goodman said. "Proof of discriminatory treatment is more difficult now because when you have a 1,000 people laid off -- rather than one, two or five -- showing that the reason is age is very difficult."

Older workers have more of an incentive to sue, Goodman said, because they might be just a year or two short of getting their full pensions.

"That is probably a major impetus," she said. "That could be some substantial loss to them."

These days, Goodman said, companies have been harder to deal with after a firing. In the past, they were likely to settle the case for an enhancement of the severance package and the granting of a full pension.

"Companies, to date, are less receptive to resolving these issues with some sort of sweetening of the pie," she said. "I was told bluntly that if you want it, you'll have to go sue us, we're just not making deals any longer."

Additional reporting by ABC News' Susan Donaldson James.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events