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Meeting of July 15, 2009 – Age Discrimination in the 21st Century—Barriers to the Employment of Older Workers

Statement of Michael L. Barnes

Good morning, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Michael L. Barnes, I’m 46 year old and I reside in Las Vegas, NV. I was invited here to speak in front of you outstanding ladies and gentlemen to share my story and give my testimony pertaining to Age Discrimination/and unlawful acts committed by Republic Services. I hope that I can help to shed some light on a very sensitive matter that I believe is not just limited to Republic Service, but spread much farther. I will give testimony of how older employees were held to a higher bar while younger employees of the company had “leniency” throughout the company. I will talk about how the company “broke off people,” and how the direction of the company changed when Republic Services took over.

I started out with Silver State Disposal in 1994. At that time I had no knowledge of the operation of a disposal company. I worked on the back of the truck as a pitcher, taking the trash off the curb and putting it in the truck. It was very hard work, especially in Las Vegas in the summer months where the temperature could be 90 degrees at night. However, it was an honest job and good pay and much different than my previous 30 years of my life (let’s say I did a lot of the growing up).

Silver State was a family business. It promoted from within and rewarded older employees for their loyalty and commitment because of all the hard work they put into the company. I got my commercial driver’s license. While in my 30’s, I attended classes, and even was hand picked for promotion twice to become the lead man in charge of drivers on shifts when no regular foremen were available. I did a safety movie, had leadership training, and taught younger drivers how to drive, only to be fired when I turned 40. All the hard work and accomplishments did not matter. I was humiliated and became worthless to the company.

When Republic took over in 1997, everything changed. As a lead, I was involved in meetings and calls where I heard comments by upper management about the older workers. In several instances there were statements made by the higher-ups about the older employees’ age and that there were going to be changes and there was nothing they could do about it. I heard them say that they were getting tired of the “old Uncle Toms.” I also heard people say openly to older workers “you’re too old.” Appalling but very true. When I tried to defend the older workers, I was told that I was old like them and to “don’t get broken off.” Republic wanted drivers in their 20s. At the time I was fired at 41, I was perceived to be too old. “Broken off,” is a term meaning to inflict pain physically and mentally to anyone that “got out of line”. This practice was used as a tactic by the higher-ups to force older workers out.

Old workers were told to train younger inexperienced people to do their jobs, and at times the younger employees were paid more than the older employees; then the older worker was fired. This made people scared to speak up, some afraid to be “broken off.” And let it be known Republic never, not once, doubted the proficiency of the older employees; they allowed them “to train” the younger employees. However they told the older employees that their positions were going to be eliminated and then they replaced them with younger employees. Younger employees were often paid more, had less experience, and lacked the work ethics to keep the company at the level it was. And it showed in the increase in workers’ compensation claims and overall accidents that took away from company profits.

It is my experience that the company went after older workers by working them harder and forcing them out. Drivers were forced to pitch trash to the point that they were not able to keep up with the truck and to load the trash fast enough. This practice is a way to literally break an older worker to the breaking point to either injure or force off the job. What would happen is that usually a younger driver would get instructions to break off an older worker. Older workers who were pitching trash were forced to work under harsher conditions like getting the extra “open” garbage routes after finishing their assigned route, and being told to redo their work to break them. Older workers were told they couldn’t get on the truck and had to walk the entire time they were collecting the garbage. The younger driver would do things like not stop or hit the gas to move the truck at a fast past to force the older person pitching or picking up the trash to run after the truck with the garbage. Chasing after the truck for hours in over 100 degree heat can be very exhausting. I have seen people cramp up and collapse of exhaustion. In some cases, ambulances had to be called. They would literally exhaust you and break you so that you would quit.

When I turned 40, I lost my position as a lead and rather than utilizing my skills, I was forced back to becoming a driver. I was subjected to the “break him off” practice. It was there that I got hurt. Unlike younger drivers who got accommodated and allowed to work lighter duties and allowed to get better, I was fired within days.

I was injured around June of 2004, a simple sprain while pitching garbage. I was seen by the company chiropractor and was essentially told that I was too old to return to work. Unlike younger workers who were placed on light duty while they got better, the company made no attempt to give me any chance to recuperate. I know of a young driver who got surgery on his rotator cuff. The company let him do other jobs and offered light duty by directing traffic. They allowed him to continue to get paid. When I was a lead, I was in charge of the casualty reports and reviewed them daily. I remembered that those reports showed younger employees being allowed to return to work from more serious injuries than mine. When I was in my 30’s, I got injured and was allowed to come back. But as soon as I hit my 40’s, I got a call from Republic a few days after my injury telling me I was fired. Another physician, who was on Republic’s Provider list, released me to full duty. That doctor was later removed from the provider list by Republic. Long story short, all I wanted was my job back. Republic didn’t care; it did everything in its power to not let me come back. I feel this was all because I was by then too old.

I am here today after the EEOC contacted me, because I wanted justice. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else. I have faith and trust in our system that justice will prevail but you need to speak up to make it happen.

For 6 years, I’ve endured this injustice only to be thrown out of the lawsuit in the EEOC’s case. I hope sharing my story will educate others about how this affects older workers and the impact the practices like Republic’s has on people like me. For those people who think that somehow discrimination against older workers is not as bad should be reminded of our stories that it is just as bad and can affect any one of us. I have lost my career and future and now make ½ of what I was making at Republic. I thank the EEOC for this opportunity to speak on this issue and hope you continue to represent people like us. I thank you for the opportunity to tell you of the injustice and pain I suffered. I thank and trust and believe and have faith that with these words, I will touch your hearts and open some minds about the practices done by Republic Services and about age discrimination. Thank you respectfully and may God bless you.