In the middle of the aisle at Trader Joe's one January, seasoned academic Nancy Nau Sullivan knew she had to file an age discrimination charge.
She had worked as an adjunct professor for seven years-taught and enriched thousands of students in her 66 years, but still not heard back from the English Department about the fulltime professorship she had interviewed for in November. Beloved by her students, esteemed and encouraged by her colleagues, Nancy had applied for full-time positions with the English Department at least five times before, but had been passed over time-after-time for younger, less-experienced applicants. She thought this time was different. . .
Against the backdrop of Hawaiian shirts and friendly faces, Nancy saw someone stocking the shelves she knew. Maria was in her 20s and had been an adjunct professor in the Harold Washington College system for only a semester. Maria eagerly told Nancy that she would not be stocking shelves much longer because she had gotten the fulltime English job. Nancy's heart sank.
Q. What Were You Thinking There in That Aisle?
Inside I was stunned. I was so let down. I was in disbelief that they had done this to me. Maria was lovely, but she did not have my experience. She had known for a week or two, but no one told me. I had a moment of realization right then and there, and I knew I had to file a charge.
Q. What Do You Want People to Take Away From Your Experience?
It was a long process, but I did not realize how simple it was to start it off. You have to figure out whether it's worth the time and effort to you and be patient. I really wanted for other people to know what happened to me because it goes on a lot, and it's serious. If I can be one more person to step forward and say this is not right, then maybe it will be better for someone else. It takes more than one voice. If I can throw mine into the mix, that's a good thing. They wanted it to go away, but I wasn't going to go away. I did not know exactly what I was getting into, but I am glad I did it.
Q. What Do You Want People to Know About Older Workers?
We are a goldmine of experience, patience, wisdom, energy, and ability. It's crazy what's going on out there to us. We have so much to bring to the table.
Q. How Was Your Experience with the EEOC?
Very positive. Very steady. Very patient and thorough. The EEOC helped me. We were successful together.
Q. Do You Have Any Wishes for the ADEA as It Turns 50?
Happy Birthday! I wish the EEOC well in the work that its doing. Keep doing it. Someone has to support people who have been discriminated against. The EEOC has done that, and I hope you continue doing it.
From the EEOC Attorney's Perspective
Q. Why Was This Case So Important to Older Workers?
It really exposed stereotypes employers make about older workers. City Colleges viewed older workers as appropriate for short-term adjunct professors, but not as full-time professors on a tenure-track. The stereotype appears to have been that older workers are at the tail end of their career and, therefore, not the best candidates for a long-term position.