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County layoffs result in first age discrimination lawsuit

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of February 23, 2012)
Photo of Mike Owens

Indian River County has laid off 27 percent of its workforce in an effort to save money in recent years.

“Hard economic times,” county administrator Joe Baird gave as the reason, adding he can’t afford to think about the toll that layoffs take on individual lives because “it has to be done and it doesn’t do any good to feel terrible about it.”

Of the 247 county employees whose jobs have been eliminated in Indian River County, 246 walked out quietly.

Only one – fleet manager Mike Owens – has taken the county on, filing a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and suing the county for age discrimination in circuit court.

“When you’re as dedicated as I was for 37 years working 10 hours a day and eating lunch at your desk, it’s hard not to think the decision to get rid of me was unfair and based on something other than restructuring, “ he said.

Owens, 55, began working for the county at 18 as a carpenter’s assistant and – over decades – worked his way up to management.  From 1974 when he started at $2.65 an hour to May 13, when he was let go and lost his $60,000 a year job, he always received good to excellent evaluations.

Before he was told to pack up his things and get out of the building, his 58-year-old foreman was let go, and minutes after Williams was marched out with a box of his belongings, his 62-year-old secretary was also laid off.

“When you consider the ages, doesn’t this look fishy?” he asked.

“It may appear to him to be age discrimination, but it has happened to people of all ages in this county,” said Baird.

Owens was in the county DROP program, designed to give people 62 or older or with 30 years on the job the incentive to retire and make way for younger, lower-paid employees. While in the program, employees pay into a retirement fund that earns a high interest rate, and they get that money when they retire, along with their pensions.   Owens would have completed the DROP program 14 months after he was let go. He estimates he lost over $100,000 in salary, DROP money and benefits.

Even worse, he said, he lost his dignity. “Not even a handshake when I left,” he said.

Owens layoff was classic, strikingly similar to how tens of thousands of people across the country have been laid off: He was called into a meeting with his supervisor, and the director of human resources was there. He was told there was no problem with his performance but he was being let go because of “restructuring.”

Less than 30 minutes later, in total shock, he was packing up his stuff, after handing over his keys and ID. He was shut out of the computer and his pass to get in the building was voided.  He was escorted to the parking lot.

“You’re treated like a criminal,” he said. “It’s a kick in the gut you never totally get over.”

But is it age discrimination?

The person who replaced Owens, Baird pointed out, was close in age to Owens. The replacement’s job in another department was eliminated when he was given Owens’ job.

In retrospect, Owens wonders if an addendum to his 2008 evaluation should have told him that someone in senior management had him in the crosshairs.

On Sept. 29, 2008, he received a good evaluation from his department director, which said he “successfully managed the activities of the fleet management division” and the “quality of vehicle repair remains high.” He was recommended for a raise.

But a week later, the director of human resources sent a memo to Owens’ supervisor telling him he couldn’t support Owens’ current high ratings. In several areas, wrote the human resources director, Owens’ performance had been “marginal at best” which, if not improved, could lead to future disciplinary action. He asked for the evaluation to be downgraded.

The next day, Owens’ supervisor responded to that damaging memo, with his own memo, saying he had revised the original evaluation so that Owens’ rating in one of 10 categories went from “good” to “satisfactory.”

That suggests, Owens said, his director was reluctant to downgrade the evaluation as much as   the human resources director wanted. “You have to wonder what was going on over my supervisor’s head – if something against me higher up was in play here,” said Owens.

Was it his age and the accompanying pay grade?

The attorney for the county, Orlando lawyer Benton Wood, said absolutely not, calling Owens’  lawsuit “frivolous.”

Wood warned: “If it continues, down the line he may have to pay our attorney fees.”  Owens said he hopes that doesn’t happen.

“I just felt with so many people near retirement being forced out, at least one of us needed to stand up to it,’” he said.

Why the decision was made to lay off Owens instead of his replacement might become clearer as the suit continues.