WASHINGTON -- Labor Under Secretary Malcolm Lovell Jr. Wednesday urged Congress to legislation that would end the forced retirement of elderly workers.
Lovell, noting President Reagan's support of the bill, said requiring people to retire at 70 -- as permitted under existing law -- is 'no longer justified.'
'The president believes this is the right thing to do and this is the right time to do it,' Lovell told a Senate labor subcommittee that heard testimony on a bill to remove the age 70 'cap' on mandatory retirement.
Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., key sponsor of the bill, opened testimony on it by saying mandatory retirement based on age is 'wasteful, arbitrary and tragic.'
Heinz said forced retirement is 'sidelining our most experienced players' and has a 'devastating impact' on many who lose their jobs.
Joining Heinz in calling for passage of the bill was Rep. Claude Pepper, D-Fla., the 81-year-old chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging.
The bill also drew strong support from members of the Senate panel, including Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Jennings Randolph, D-W. Va., and Paula Hawkins, R-Fla.
It was opposed by spokesmen for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Pepper said the bill to amend the Age Discrimination in Employment Act would extend job protection to more than 800,000 workers over the age of 70.
The Florida Democrat said the bill differs from much legislation now before Congress in not being intended 'to meet the needs of a narrow constituency.'
'Age discrimination touches the lives of every American,' he said.
Such discrimination, he said, was 'just as vicious and obnoxious' as sexual and racial discrimination.
Pepper also scoffed at claims that scrapping forced retirement would deprive youth, women and minority of jobs.
A Labor Department study, he said, shows the current 70-year cap has had 'no significant negative effect' on the employment of younger people.
Lovell agreed and said the study indicates many older people would choose to retire in any event. Elimination of the age 70 cap would add only about 200,000 elderly persons to the workforce by the year 2000, he said.
The administration official said the study has been completed but has not yet been cleared for release.
Robert Thompson, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce's labor relations committee, urged rejection of the legislation.
The current law already causes 'disruptions' and eliminating mandatory retirement would create more problems for business, he said.
Thompson, a Washington and Greenville, S.C., lawyer, also called for the elimination of an existing right to jury trial in age discrimination cases.
Juries are overly sympathetic to older people, he said in claiming that jury trials are being used 'to shake down innocent employers.'
David Brathwaite, a U.S. Steel official who testified for the National Association of Manufacturers, made a similar complaint.
'Jury trials simply provide windfall benefits to those who choose to bring suit,' he declared.
But Igor Sikorsky Jr., a Hartford, Conn., lawyer who often represents older workers in discrimination cases, defended the right to a jury trial.
'Congress and the courts have already created a jury right,' he said. 'It would be foolish to alter the rule at this time.'
Despite business opposition to the bill, Heinz said he thinks chances for its passage before Congress adjourns are 'excellent.'