A federal age discrimination complaint brought against IBM Corp. on Monday alleges the technology giant systematically fired tens of thousands of older workers in recent years as part of an effort to recruit more millennials and “make the face of IBM younger.”
The lawsuit, filed by Boston labor lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan, asks that laid-off workers be reinstated to their IBM jobs and be awarded back pay and other damages.
It names three plaintiffs, all veteran employees in their 50s and 60s who lost their jobs in late June. The plaintiffs are seeking class-action status, hoping to be joined by “potentially thousands” of other former IBM workers, Liss-Riordan said.
According to the complaint, filed in US District Court in New York, the company “is discriminating against its older workers both by laying them off disproportionately to younger workers and by not hiring them for open positions. Over the last several years, IBM has been in the process of systematically laying off its older employees in order to build a younger workforce.”
IBM vice president Edward Barbini said the discrimination complaint was without merit and the company would defend itself vigorously.
Barbini released a company statement that said: “Changes in our workforce are about skills, not age. In fact, since 2010 there is no difference in the age of our US workforce, but the skills profile has changed dramatically.
“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,” said the statement, which did not address specific claims in the complaint.
While no Massachusetts employees are named as plaintiffs, Liss-Riordan said she expects some will join the lawsuit. The company, which paid $3.5 billion to buy Cambridge’s Lotus Development in 1995, has more than 1,000 employees in the state.
IBM operates a research lab focusing on innovations such as artificial intelligence in Kendall Square, where its recently launched health data business, IBM Watson Health, is also based. It also has a large software development operation on Interstate 495 in Littleton.
Citing a March report by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news outlet, the suit said IBM — a leader in the first generation of computing — is racing to catch up with younger high-tech rivals like Google, Facebook, and Amazon in the fast-growing fields of cloud services, big data, mobile computing, security, and social media.
As part of its move to “embrace the millennial mindset,” the suit said, IBM has been “pushing out older employees,” paring more than 20,000 jobs of employees 40 and over in the United States during the past five years alone.
The complaint cited a 2006 paper by an IBM consulting arm that described the company’s older employees as “gray hairs” and “old heads” and said younger workers are “generally much more innovative and receptive to technology than baby boomers.”
High-profile suits against companies like Google and the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers have brought fresh attention to the issue of age bias, but many employers still view hiring and firing decisions as economic issues rather than civil rights issues, said Laurie McCann, senior attorney for the advocacy group AARP in Washington.
“Some of these technology companies have come to think the law doesn’t apply to them,” McCann said, noting that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed in 1967. “Sometimes the executives are just bragging about how youthful they are.”
Liss-Riordan has brought dozens of employment complaints against companies across the country, representing employees in cases against Uber, Amazon, and Google, among others. In March, Harvard agreed to settle a class-action suit she brought over misclassifying workers as independent contractors. She’s also represented strippers, cleaning ladies, and truckers in employment cases.
Age bias is a “rampant problem” in the technology industry, she said.
“IBM appears to be trying to change its image by targeting older workers for layoffs,” she said. “This is illegal. We have laws in this country to prevent discrimination by age. These are employees who have devoted years of their lives to this company only to be shown the door.”
The complaint includes both federal claims and claims in North Carolina and California, where two of the named plaintiffs worked. Liss-Riordan said she’ll ask the federal court to formally certify the lawsuit as a class-action complaint and to authorize notifying all laid-off employees.
Under federal law, laid-off employees would have to “opt in” to join the class covered by the suit. But employees laid off from IBM jobs in North Carolina and California would automatically be part of the class unless they opted out, Liss-Riordan said.
She said she’s offering to represent in individual arbitration cases any of the substantial number of employees who, as a condition of receiving severance benefits, signed an agreement saying disputes with the company over layoffs would be resolved through arbitration rather than lawsuits.
Liss-Riordan said many laid-off employees declined to sign such agreements, often because the severance offer was so small. She said she doesn’t know how many signed the pacts.