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Can someone be the victim of age discrimination in their 20s?

Under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), employers cannot fire, refuse to hire or otherwise discriminate against employees because of their age. But, if you were to dig a little deeper into the ADEA, you would quickly find that it actually only protects workers who are at least 40-years-old -- meaning younger workers are out of luck under the ADEA.

In fact, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) clearly points out that it is not illegal under the ADEA for an employer to favor older workers over younger ones.

If you think this sounds a bit one-sided, you are not alone. Indeed, this is why many states, including Maryland, have passed laws that protect all workers from age discrimination, regardless of their age.

Maryland's age discrimination law: the basics

Like the ADEA, Maryland law also prohibits employers from firing, refusing to hire or otherwise discriminating against employees because of their age. The one important difference between federal and Maryland law, however, is that Maryland law does not specify a minimum or maximum age requirement in order to qualify for protection.

In fact, both younger and older workers in Maryland are protected from age discrimination, including circumstances involving:

  • Workforce reductions/firings based on age instead of objective work-related factors
  • Workplace actions or statements motivated by a worker's age that create a hostile work environment
  • Workplace practices or policies based solely on age that may impact pay, promotions, training, benefits, hirings and firings
  • Workplace policies that appear neutral, but in application create a disproportional negative effect on protected employees

The exception: a "bona fide occupational qualification"

It should be noted, however, that there is one situation in which employers can set a minimum or maximum age requirement for a job, and that is when a "bona fide occupational qualification" (BFOQ) exists.

In the context of age-discrimination, a BFOQ exists if the employer can show that an employee's age -- whether they are too young or too old -- will legitimately interfere with their ability to perform the functions of the job adequately.

While this exception is most often claimed when talking about older workers, it can also, on occasion, involve younger workers. For example, in one Maryland case, the Division of Corrections (DOC) claimed that a minimum age of 21 was a BFOQ for being a correctional officer (CO).

Ultimately, the Office of the Attorney General (AG) disagreed. In a written AG opinion, it stated that the DOC would have a hard time showing that someone under the age of 21 couldn't do job of a CO, particularly when the Correctional Training Commission -- the agency in charge of setting statewide standards for COs -- had already decided to lower the minimum age for such positions to 18.

All workers deserve protection

Ultimately, both Maryland law and the federal ADEA are vital to protecting the rights of employees. After all, no worker should be discriminated against solely because of their age, regardless of whether they are younger or older.

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