A short time before she was fired from her job as a barista at a Starbucks in Baltimore city, Margaret S. Hobson, 65, remembers her manager coming up to her with a concern.
“‘Oh Suzie, you seem to be slowing down,’” Hobson recalled the woman telling her. “‘Is this too much for you?’”
On Feb. 11, 2012, Hobson was fired by Starbucks on grounds that she violated company policy on safety and security when she allowed a co-worker to go home early, leaving Hobson as the only employee in the store.
The younger woman had complained to Hobson, the shift manager, about staying so late, so Hobson accommodated her. Hobson, who began working at the store in 2006, had always received good evaluations from her managers, she said.
Sending the woman home early was not unusual, Hobson said. “Ninety percent of the shift supervisors and managers are in the store alone at one point or another,” she said.
Hobson was replaced by two younger workers in their 20s, she said.
Starbucks denies Hobson was fired because of her age.
“Starbucks is aware of the complaint you called about but believes there is no factual basis to the allegations it makes,” said a Starbucks spokesman, who added that he could not be quoted by name under company policy. “Starbucks has a long history of promoting equality, inclusion and diversity both in our workplace and in the communities we serve. We strive to create a welcoming environment for our partners (employees) and customers and have a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind in our workplace.”
Hobson has filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, said her attorney, Mary Keating, who specializes in employment law.
Last year in Maryland, 528 age-discrimination complaints were filed against employers, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which tracks discrimination complaints. A total of 2,480 discrimination complaints of all types were filed in the state last year.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 bans discrimination by employers of those 40 and older. The act includes a broad ban against discriminatory practices because of a person’s age as it relates to hiring, promotions, firings and layoffs. In addition, companies are prohibited from specifying age preferences and limitations.
Proving age discrimination is difficult, however, said Todd Eberly, coordinator of Public Policy Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
“Even as written the laws typically err on the side of the employer and make it relatively easy for them to meet the burden of evidence that it wasn’t because of age, it wasn’t because of discrimination,” Eberly said.
At one time, those who felt they were victims of age discrimination did not have to show the employer’s intent was discrimination, but the effect of the action was discriminatory, Eberly said.
“But the Supreme Court has ruled over time in ways that watered that down, and now you have to prove intent, and it’s hard,” Eberly said.
With baby-boomers hitting 65 years old and wanting to keep working because of financial issues, a larger segment of the population is likely to face age discrimination, he said.
“Employers are going to want to push them off the rolls for somebody younger and cheaper,” Eberly said.
Legislators at the federal or state level are going to hear from people who want that addressed, he said.
“You don’t want to do things business-unfriendly, but you don’t want to do anything unfriendly to people in an age group who vote in high numbers,” Eberly said. “Businesses don’t vote, but angry seniors do.”
After dismissing Hobson, Starbucks disputed her unemployment benefits claim, she said.
Previously, Hobson had run a coffee stand Saturdays at the Waverly Farmers Market in Baltimore when she got the job at Starbucks, less than a mile away. For a time, she worked both jobs. A year before she was dismissed, however, she was told she could not keep her own coffee operation because it would be a conflict of interest, so one of her sons took it over.
Hobson has since returned to selling coffee at the farmers market stall.
The Starbucks job had paid her nearly $30,000 a year, but more importantly, it offered health insurance, which Hobson said she could not afford on her own.
The Maryland Commission on Civil Rights has heard the case but not yet issued a finding, Keating said. If the commission determines the case has merit, it could either attempt to reach a settlement with Starbucks or take the company to court on behalf of Hobson. If the commission rules against Hobson, she still could file a civil lawsuit.
That, however, would pit Hobson, who lives off the income of the coffee stand, against Starbucks, which reported net revenues of $13.3 billion in fiscal 2012.
Repeated calls to the Commission on Civil Rights were not returned before deadline.
A researcher with the AARP, an advocacy group for people 50 and older, is currently preparing a report on age discrimination in the work force, but the analysis is not yet complete.
In 2002, some 19,921 age discrimination complaints were filed with the EEOC compared with 22,857 in 2012. However, the number of complaints peaked in 2008 at the height of the Great Recession, when 24,582 age discrimination complaints were filed, according to EEOC records.
“The job market has been difficult, so there are a lot of people who feel they’ve been selected because of their age when the company had a reduction in force,” Keating said. “Those are difficult to win because when someone loses their job and they’re not replaced, then you can’t prove it was done because of their age.”