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Feds allege age-based hiring discrimination at Lilly in lawsuit

An image of the sign labeled "Lilly Corporate Center". Flags and a building are visible in the background.
Lauren Chapman
/
IPB News
In a statement, the company "denies the allegations in the complaints" and remains committed to "fostering and promoting a culture of diversity and respect.”

Federal officials alleged discrimination against older job applicants at Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company Lilly USA in a lawsuit this week.

“There [are] a lot of studies that suggest age discrimination is pretty prevalent in society,” Indiana University Bloomington Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Law Debora Widiss said in an interview. “A lot of age discrimination, or really, any kind of discrimination is never actually pursued in court.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit claims Lilly’s Senior Vice President for Human Resources and Diversity Steve Fry said the company’s sales representative workforce “skewed toward the older generations” during a Leadership Town Hall in 2017.

To ensure Lilly’s employees were “more distributed ... by generation,” Fry allegedly set a goal to make the workforce 40 percent “early career" workers, according to the commission’s filing in Indiana’s Southern District Court.

Fry is set to retire after 35 years with Lilly at the end of this year, according to an August press release from the company.

“According to a recent study by the AARP, nearly 80 percent of older workers say they’ve seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace,” said Evangeline Hawthorne, EEOC Field Office director for Tampa, FL, where the nationwide suit originated. “The EEOC is committed to protecting the rights of job applicants to ensure hiring decisions are based on abilities, not age.”

The EEOC alleges that statement and goal led to Lilly’s managers changing practices to hire more young employees, including requiring “higher levels of review and approval” for older applicants, through at least 2021. The commission says managers knew these practices “constituted unlawful age discrimination,” but continued them anyway.

This alleged pattern of discrimination would violate the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. EEOC lawyers are seeking a jury trial, where they aim to get back pay and damages for the class of people affected by Lilly’s alleged discrimination and get a court order to prevent the such practices in the future.

“There's nothing wrong with trying to build a diverse pool of applicants, on any grounds, age, race, etc.,” IU Bloomington Law Professor Widiss said. “Where you run into potential trouble with the legal standards is not in terms of sort of building a diverse pool, but when … you're actually considering age or race or other factors as part of the basis of the decisions that you're making in terms of whom to hire.”

Current economic conditions may force older people to skip or leave retirement to work, she added.

“So, without being able to say anything about what happened particularly at Lilly,” Widiss said. “I do think it is a time where it's really important to be sending companies that message that age discrimination is illegal.”

Both the EEOC and Lilly USA, a subsidiary of Eli Lilly & Company, declined interview requests. But in a statement, the company said it denies "the allegations in the complaints" and remains "committed to fostering and promoting a culture of diversity and respect.”

That denial also applies to a 2021 private lawsuit filed in the same district on behalf of two individuals with similar allegations who could represent a class of people who were also discriminated against.

One of the plaintiffs, Jerad Grimes, is a former Lilly employee who was laid off during a company-wide restructuring in 2017. According to the complaint, he was invited to reapply for other positions only to be repeatedly denied after one or no interviews.

“Instead,” Grimes’ lawyers wrote, he learned through his former peers at the company that “Eli Lilly hired a substantially younger individual who was not more qualified than Grimes to fill the position.”

According to recent court filings, Lilly moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that the plaintiffs failed to “allege the identity of the applicant or the age of the applicant who was hired over them” and allege that the company knew of their ages during the application process.

Judge Richard L. Young dismissed the motion, ruling the law requires plaintiffs “only identify the type of discrimination, when it occurred, by whom.”

Contact reporter Adam at arayes@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @arayesIPB.

Adam is Indiana Public Broadcasting's labor and employment reporter. He was born and raised in southeast Michigan, where he got his first job as a sandwich artist at Subway in high school. After graduating from Western Michigan University in 2019, he joined Michigan Radio's Stateside show as a production assistant. He then became the rural and small communities reporter at KUNC in Northern Colorado.