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Rachel May on the Campbell Conversations

Senator Rachel May
Senator Rachel May

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Senator Rachel May. She is a Democrat representing the 53rd Senate District and is the chair of the Senate Committee on Aging. They discuss age discrimination and ageism.

Program Transcription:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to The Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. In recent years, many different kinds of identities have come under increased scrutiny for discrimination and unfair treatment. One that has arguably received somewhat less attention, is age. My guest this week is State Senator Rachel May. Senator May is a Democrat and she represents the 53rd Senate district. She's the chair of the Senate Committee on Aging. Senator May welcome back to the program.

Rachel May: Thank you, Grant. I'm happy to be here.

GR: We're glad to have you. Let me, I wanted to start with some very, very broad questions about age and discrimination and then get into perhaps some more details about things that you're looking at and the states looking at. But I know as chair of the Aging Committee that you think a lot about the different challenges that older New Yorkers face and the problems that threaten their health and their quality of life. So the first question is just how big of a role does age discrimination play as one of those challenges? Is it a main problem that faces seniors, in your view?

RM: Well, it's a big problem. We've had the Age Discrimination and Employment Act in effect for 55 years, but we still see frankly, a majority of people over 45 in the workplace who say they've seen or witnessed some form of age discrimination and a very large percentage of them say it's pervasive. So it happens all the time. And let me also add that it's compounded with all the other kinds of discrimination. So women are also more likely to experience age discrimination. Black workers in particular are very likely to also experience age discrimination.

GR: Yeah, you just anticipated my follow-up question, which is does it play out differently for other kinds of identities and categories? And I was thinking particularly of men versus women. And, you know, we know there's a lot of age discrimination differences when it comes to appearance for women versus men. Say a little bit more about how age discrimination intersects with some of those different categories you mentioned.

RM: Well, I think you have to tease out the difference between ageism and age discrimination. Age discrimination is illegal. Discrimination against people. Ageism is just pervasive in our culture. And it is particularly applied more to women than to men. As women get older, women get dismissed more, women get treated as less or in so many different ways. And so that then, of course, carries over into the workplace as well in both subtle forms of not paying attention, not taking them seriously, and in more overt ways of actually not being willing to hire older women or not promoting them, that kind of thing.

GR: And you focused right in on the workplace. When I asked you this question, and I guess when I was using the term age discrimination, I was thinking of something broader that might include ageism as well. Not necessarily, well, we'll get into that, the legal definition. But is the workplace where you really think about this issue most or are you thinking, do you also spend time thinking about this in a broader sense?

RM: Well, because I chair the aging committee, I think very broadly about it. But when we talk about age discrimination, we are talking about employment discrimination typically. That is where that issue that's what the Age Discrimination and Employment Act was about, was making sure that people weren't being denied a job or fired from a job because of their age. And, you know, there were arguments then and even then when they put that into effect, it had an upper age limit of 65. So there even built into that act was an assumption that at 65 then it was OK to discriminate against people on the basis of age. And that has changed over time. They raised it to seven eventually they got rid of the age limit on when age discrimination was OK because it wasn't OK and it all you know, there's a ton of research that shows that people age individuals age very differently. And there are some people who get sharper and or become better problem solvers and even more creative or innovative thinkers as they get older and some people don't. And so age, so employment decisions should be made based on the individual and not on the category as with race, as with gender, as with physical disability, as with age. So that's where age discrimination is. It's like applying your idea about a whole class of people to the individuals without taking into account their individual abilities. So that's discrimination. But then ageism obviously is a much bigger issue and it leads to things like elder abuse. It is probably at the root of why our long-term care system is so dysfunctional. Because as a society, we don't care about our elders as we should.

GR: So when we see someone in a nursing home, we might think, well, their quality of life is so low in a sense they are less than I don't have to use the same standards of treatment that I might if someone were 40 and in a hospital. That's what you're getting at, is that right?

RM:  Right. Or you don't have to listen to them the same way or, you know, weigh their opinions as heavily as they might somebody in their thirties, you know? Yeah, there is all kinds of ways that ageism creeps into our world. Well outside the workplace.

GR: Well, let me ask you this question about the workplace. And are there some industries or occupations that you think are more subject to the specific kind of age discrimination that you're talking about?

RM: So the number one area I think, where people experience it the most is in high-tech, technology jobs. And the assumption that because you're not a digital native, you aren't able to navigate the rapidly changing world of technology is a form of age discrimination. And I, I gather there have even been job descriptions where they've said we're looking for a digital native, which would be essentially you know, you and I are not digital natives because that came in. You know, we have had to learn it later in our lives. And so I think there have actually been judgments, court judgments against using that kind of language. But it doesn't mean the mindset goes away. And I think one of the things that's most important about age discrimination is that it often originates in the minds of the people of the older workers themselves who say, I'm not even going to bother applying for that job because I won't be considered for it. And they're right to some extent, they will apply. And older workers, it takes them a lot longer to get an interview, typically to get a new job. And often they'll get a job that is effectively a demotion from what they were doing before. So people aren't wrong to think that way. But we want to encourage people to continue applying and making sure that employers see that older workers are more experienced workers, are often more skilled workers or are willing to stay longer. So one of the things one of the reasons that employers have for thinking, I don't want to invest in training an older worker is that there won't be a payoff to that investment because they won't stay very long. But the reality is the other way around are you have your hire someone in their twenties or thirties. The turnover is about three years. People will stay in one job for about three years at that age, whereas older workers are much more likely to stay longer and actually be a good investment for the employer.

GR: That makes perfect sense. You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with New York State Senator Rachel May and we're talking about age discrimination and ageism. The protections against age discrimination in both the state and your impression of how they've played out across the nation, have they kind of mimicked the protections of other protected categories, or have they followed their own path and had their own logics?

RM: So I don't want to get into the weeds of that. I do understand that the ADEA, the specific discrimination age discrimination statute was crafted a little differently from some of the other ones. And so judges have found have ruled differently about some of the cases. But in general. Yes. And so, for example, in New York state, we have a proposed law by Senator Krueger that would ban inquiries into age, date of birth and graduation date so that you couldn't be required to include those in your resume for example, when you're applying for a job. Because those are you know, that's the number one way that an employer would find out at the very beginning of the process, roughly how old you were and might just, you know, set your application aside. So I think, you know, we're trying to think of innovative ways to kind of cut it off at the pass before the age discrimination even gets, becomes a factor.

GR: One difference that occurred to me was, I you know, there are some jobs where age would be irrelevant factor. And so if my understanding is if it's a relevant factor, then you in order to do the job, you can take it into consideration. But you couldn't say that about race, for example. You know, just doesn't that doesn't apply. So there might be some physical labor jobs where age could be. I think considered a relevant factor. Does that make sense to you for some of the differences?

RM: Well, yes and no. I mean, as I said before, people age differently. And there are people who remain strong and, you know, are running marathons in their eighties. And to say that they don't have the strength or the stamina is that ought to be more individual rather than just saying, you know, we're going to cut this off at age 50. You know, we're not going to take any applications from anyone over 50. So that is the point of, hey, to make sure that people aren't being just thrown into a class that they don't belong in. So, yeah, you know, I think there will what you hope is that people will filter themselves out if they aren't capable of doing the job, whether they're 20 years old or 70 years they shouldn't be applying for the job or, you know, pretending to be able to do it.

GR: Yeah, I think my days as a roofer are done, for example, but so let me flip this around and think about not so much the workplace, but people who are receiving public programs for participating in public programs in some ways. Are there particular public programs where either age discrimination or problematic ageism is a particular concern to you? You mentioned the elderly in nursing homes not being listened to in the same way. Are there things like that that you think about?

RM: Oh, yes. Well, one of the bills that I'm really pushing right now would create an Office of the Aged-friendly New York. So it would actually and there is a master plan for aging that is under development now. That what we want is to look across the entire spectrum of what this state does so that we're thinking about transportation policy and neighborhood development policy, complete streets. We're thinking about our park system, our I'm struggling to think of it. But, you know, all of the different things that we do as a state to make sure that all of those areas are age-friendly. Governor Cuomo was very proud that AARP had named New York state, its first age-friendly state. But what we're finding is that was kind of window dressing a little bit. We want that. We want to make sure that we're following through and making that actually be the case that all of the agencies across the executive branch are taking into account how does this affect older New Yorkers? Because older New Yorkers are a bigger and bigger portion of the population all the time. And a really important one in terms of resources, the amount of money we spend, you know, the jobs we do, the ways that we are engaged in our communities, volunteering that we do. So making sure that we're acknowledging this very large piece of the population and making our state accessible and welcoming to older New Yorkers is really important.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with New York State Senator Rachel May. She chairs the Aging Committee in the Senate. And we've been talking about ageism and age discrimination. You know, there was a paradox that popped into my head while you were speaking before the break. And then I have a follow-up question about some of the things that you are mentioning that you want to see more work done on. But the paradox is this, is that I know that older people get a lot of attention from elected officials, as I know this as a political scientist, because surprise, surprise, they vote a lot and there their turnout is much higher, particularly compared to people in their twenties, in their thirties, but at the same time I'm thinking about how rampant ageism is. And even among those in the government. So it seems like there's a paradox. On the one hand, you're the government super sensitive to these people and on the other hand, dismisses them. I don't know if there's, I don't know if there's a question in there, but it struck me as an interesting political paradox. While you were speaking, do you have any thoughts about that or how you might have experienced this as an elected official?

RM: You know, that's a good question. I mean, I like to believe that we pay attention to people at all ages of the spectrum and but it's hard for me to tease it out because I've spent my entire three and a half years now in public service as Chair of the Aging Committee. So it's been my focus much more than other people's focus. I don't think, honestly, that it is as much of a focus as it should be, and it has taken a lot of work to get some of my colleagues to pay attention to the issues that we've had with long-term care, but it will also say that some of the youngest members of the Senate on the aging committee, because they recognize either they have many nursing homes in their districts or they have themselves cared for aging relatives. And they understand that the issues are complex and important. So I, I don't think that it's just that we're, you know, paying attention to people who vote I do think, though, I mean, the fact that older people vote is kind of together with the fact that they are more active in their communities. Typically the ones who volunteer, the ones who are running our elections, the ones who are doing the diaper banks and the food pantries and so many things that keep our society running. And so wanting to make sure that we're paying attention to keeping them here in New York so they don't all leave and move to Florida or someplace else, you know, but also recognizing the work that they do and making sure they're not being mistreated, abused or neglected in or isolated in the many ways that happen to older people in America.

GR: And before the break, you were talking about some of the things that you'd like to see more work done on and that you're thinking about pushing forward, thinking about the next year. Are there are some really specific initiatives that you could talk about briefly that you're planning on pushing?

RM: Sure. So I mentioned the Office of Age-friendly New York. I think that's one. I hope we're going to pass that bill. And then we can start really making sure that that happens, that this master plan on aging is a very important step. And I'm quite concerned that the Department of Health has been put in charge of implementing it. Not that the Department of Health shouldn't have a role but I don't want us to just be thinking about the medical issues of older New Yorkers. I don't want us just to be thinking about long-term care. I want us to really be thinking about the workforce issues and the active aging issues. This is Older Americans Month, and the theme this year is “Age My Way.” We want to be really thinking about how to help people stay active as long as they possibly can, because that also contributes to making people healthier and also improve our whole communities. So that's one, I have another bill on the Office of or Older Adult Workforce Development and one for Encore Entrepreneurship, both to encourage seniors or older New Yorkers to get involved, to stay in the workforce, to try new things, to start their own businesses. There are a lot of good reasons to do that. And specific reasons why it's a little bit harder for people to do that. And then finally, I would say just this general idea of age-friendly New York leads to a lot of really good potential policy on things like how we develop our streets or our transportation systems. So I want to make sure that we are taking the work of these task forces. We have a task force on reimagining long-term care in New York state too and again, that's not just about nursing homes or assisted living, but about how do we keep people in their homes as long as possible? How do we make sure that the communities that we have in New York are welcoming and accessible to people as they age? I don't know if you're familiar with the term NORCs, but there is this really important thing in New York state called naturally occurring retirement communities or NORCs. So it's kind of the concept started in New York City where there were big apartment buildings that were built, you know, 60 years ago. And a lot of people, families moved in at that time. And then the adults have aged all together in one place. And so instead of moving them all to assisted living, they're bringing in a nurse and programming of various kinds, social workers who can work with the people in the building and help them age in place. And upstate, it's a little harder to do, but there are efforts to do it as a neighborhood where there's been a suburban development, for example, where lots of families moved in at once and people have aged together for decades to help them stay where they are. So that's a program I want to see us expand across the state so that we can really have that aging in place happening in a positive way that where people have the support they need.

GR: Yeah, I sort of live in one, in a way. I think if you're just joining us, you're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is New York State Senator Rachel May. We've got about 5 minutes left and I want to squeeze in a few political questions and then another question on a different topic. But let me ask you this question first. If we could be brief on this and then we'll leave the aging aside move these other things. I have experience, you and I are about the same age. I've experienced whiffs of age discrimination at the university from time to time. I'll just say that have you experienced age discrimination? Did you experience it as a candidate, for example, or ageism?

RM: You know, there have been moments in my particularly my second campaign where explicitly I was in a debate and my opponent said something about my age as being somehow disqualifying. And I, it was offensive frankly. And I don't, but I have to say it hasn't happened a lot. I can go back much farther, though. I was 32 years old when I applied for my first job as a college professor, and I was turned down for one of the jobs. And the department chair called me and told me that they wanted someone younger.

GR: Great.

RM: And I was 32 years old. And now the age discrimination law doesn't kick in until 40 so I couldn't have sued for that. But it was a pretty shocking thing to be told at that age. So, you know, it is very real.

GR: Well, let me change the subject now. I want to ask you a question about abortion rights, and it's been covered enormously in the press. So I just have one really specific question about this. Attorney General James has proposed state funding to support people from out of state coming into New York state to get abortions if they couldn't get them in their own state. And there's other proposals like this in other states. It's one thing, I think, for a state to say we will provide these abortions to people, but it's another to say we will financially support nonresidents getting the service. Are you, do you support that or is that going too far?

RM: I'm, I support that. I think we I think New York needs to be the haven for people around the country who are experiencing having their rights taken away. And the governor did a beautiful job on the day that the news broke about the Supreme Court decision. There was a rally in Albany. And she talked about the Statue of Liberty being, you know, about New York, welcoming people in trouble. And I do think young women in trouble need to be able to come here. I do support them.

GR: OK, and also setting the Supreme Court decision aside which I think is going to at least right now, looks like it's going to help energize Democrats in the upcoming election, certainly energize the base, absent that, the political winds weren't looking good for Democrats in the midterm elections across the country. You know, there's a possibility that a recession could wipe out any kind of wind in the Democratic sails, especially among moderate voters. Do you see this working its way down to the state races or do you see this more as a national phenomenon just in a couple of seconds, if you could?

RM: Well, it's definitely hard to run against a bad economy, but I do think Democrats have the moral high ground right now, and we have the ideas. The Republican Party isn't trying to solve problems. They're just trying to stir up anger and resentment and fear. And those are effective in getting people to vote, but they aren't effective in solving problems. And I think if we can just keep making that argument that we are the party of trying to address the issues that are the big issues that we are facing, then I think we can win all across the country.

GR: And this last one really just almost a one-word answer. But have you chosen a candidate for governor in the Democratic primary that you're supporting?

RM: Well, I endorsed Kathy Hochul a while ago.

GR: You did, yep, OK.

RM: I'm still supporting her.

GR: Sticking with her. OK, all right. That was State Senator May. So I want to thank you, as always, for taking the time to talk with me.

RM: My pleasure. Thanks, Grant.

GR: You've been listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.