RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Well-known employment lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan believes IBM systematically targeted older workers for layoff to build a younger workforce, flouting rules against age bias – and she’s going to prove it.
“IBM seems to recognize it has a problem here,” she told WRAL TechWire on Tuesday night, pointing to the fact that the tech giant had carved out age discrimination claims from its severance agreement in recent years.
It did so, she says, “so that it would not have to provide the required disclosures of ages of its workers who were retained and who were laid off” in an effort to conceal its effort to shed its older employees.
IBM has also tried to protect itself from claims by including an arbitration clause, she adds, “knowing that the U.S. Supreme Court has been increasingly accepting of this way companies can avoid liability in court for such issues as discrimination.”
The comments come just a day after she filed a class-action law suit against Big Blue on behalf of three former employees – including Henry Gerrits, 67, who lives in Cary and worked for IBM for about 33 years before getting laid off in June.
The suit alleges IBM has consistently laid off at least 20,000 employees over the age of 40 between 2012 and the present – the result of a shift in IBM’s personal focus to the generation of workers referred to as “millennials”, or those born after 1980.
“We intend to show IBM that it cannot escape discrimination laws this way,” says Liss-Riordan, who is known as one of the nation’s top class action employment lawyers, and has represented workers against other powerhouses like Google, Amazon and Uber.
“We look forward to pursuing this case in court and, where necessary, in arbitration.”
IBM, meanwhile, argues that the changes in its workforce are about skills, not age.
“In fact, since 2010 there is no difference in the age of our U.S. workforce, but the skills profile has changed dramatically,” IBM spokesperson Edward Barbini said in an e-mailed statement. “That is why we have been and will continue investing heavily in employee skills and retraining — to make all of us successful in this new era of technology.”
Henry Gerrits did not respond to requests for comment, and Liss-Riordan told WRAL TechWire that he is not giving interviews at this time.
Former employees gather online, ask to join suit
As news broke over the lawsuit, disaffected former IBM employees gathered online, venting on forums like Facebook’s Watching IBM.
Some just wanted to swap stories. Many asked where they could go to join suit.
Linda Bates Laun, from Louisville, Kentucky, who worked for IBM for 17 years according to LinkedIn, commented: “I hit the trifecta in 2016. 1. One year from retirement bridge – 53; 2. Top of my band (10); 3. Ready for promotion with DE package complete And signed off. They still have people doing my “skill” just in India and Poland. Sounds like they have a winner lawsuit here. Where do I sign up?”
Other retired IBMers contacted WRAL TechWire directly to air grievances.
“In the 60s and 70s and later in the original IBM, current employees were trained to meet the new demands of changing technology and business direction. In the last 15-20 years the employment plan has changed to ‘dump anyone with old skills and hire needed skills, preferably younger and cheaper’,” one reader wrote in.
Tom Tuning, who lists his work experience as technical marketing support with IBM on LinkedIn, also commented at the bottom of WRAL TechWire’s story published on Tuesday: “This happened to me and several of my friends. Good workers just let go for no reason.”
The suit’s finer details
These laid-off IBMers may just get their chance at retribution.
According to the suit, the plaintiffs bring these claims on behalf of themselves and similarly situated IBM employees “who may choose to opt in to this action.”
To back up its case, it relies heavily on a report by ProPublica, published in March, following an investigation of IBM’s hiring practices.
Quoting directly from the report, it said that IBM’s CEO Virginia Rommetty, who took over in 2012, “launched a major overhaul that aimed to make IBM a major player in the emerging technologies of cloud services, big data analytics, mobile security and social media, or what came to be known inside as CAMS” and “sought to sharply increase hiring of people born after 1980.”
Additionally, it said that IBM embraced the belief that “CAMS are driven by Millennial traits.”
To further illustrate this shift, the suit also cited a Riord titled “The Maturing Workforce” that refers to baby-boomer employees as “gray hairs” and “old heads”. It stated that “successor generations … are generally much more innovative and receptive to technology than baby boomers”.
Furthermore, it pointed to a 2014 IBM conference called “Reinvention in the Age of the Millennial”, in which IBM announced its intent to “embrace the Millennial mindset” and announced what’s good for Millennials is good for everyone.”
It also claims IBM forced or coaxed older employees out of work through what IBM refers to as “Resource Actions”, reductions in force or layoffs, while shielding its youngest workers.
The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory damages, “including back pay and front pay”, and that they be reinstated to their positions.