(Bloomberg) -- Job fairs are as much a part of college culture as keg parties and summer internships. But might there be something pernicious lurking behind those folding tables, company logos and firm handshakes?
That’s the question posed by a lawsuit that accuses PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP of illegally favoring younger job seekers. Middle-aged accountants who applied -- and were rejected -- for jobs with the global accounting firm claim that by focusing much of its recruitment effort on college campuses, PwC discriminates against older applicants.
The case is part of a new U.S. battleground in age discrimination over hiring, rather than firing, in which advocates claim companies are closing off job opportunities for Baby Boomers and Generation Xers. In another example, the Communications Workers of America, a labor union, alleged in a class-action complaint in December that hundreds of employers were illegally targeting their want ads to younger people via Facebook Inc.’s ad platform.
PwC, second to Deloitte LLP among the largest accounting firms by fee income, denies the claims against it and said its hiring practices are merit-based and have nothing to do with age. It insists there’s no discriminatory intent in its college recruitment program and notes that it’s hardly alone in trolling campuses for new hires.
But the company has been unable to dodge the two-year-old lawsuit in San Francisco federal court, which was bolstered by a study that found that younger applicants had a 538 percent better chance of getting jobs at PwC than those 40 and over.
“It’s fairly clear when you look at the PwC case that college recruiting can be used in a discriminatory way,” says Patricia Barnes, a lawyer and author who specializes in discrimination law and isn’t involved in the case. “If college recruiting is the way you hire people, you are obviously excluding people who aren’t in college and that means older people.”
Emily Nicklin, an outside lawyer for PwC, said “there are many ways to apply for a job at PwC, not just through the campus hiring process.”
So far, older workers have had limited success in cases alleging institutional bias in hiring policies. A big win came last year when Texas Roadhouse Inc., a national chain of steakhouses, agreed to pony up $12 million and end its policy of rejecting job applicants 40 and up.
The agreement was hammered out by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has also won settlements in smaller hiring cases, according to spokeswoman Kimberly Dulic.
A significant setback came in 2016 when the federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled that federal law doesn’t protect older job seekers from company policies that adversely affect them. In that case, a 49-year-old man sued R.J. Reynolds Tobacco over its policy of favoring applicants who had graduated within the last two or three years.
In the PwC case, the suing accountants are awaiting a ruling on whether the case can proceed as a class action. If so, the number of plaintiffs will swell to 12,169 from 32 with more expected to be added during pretrial evidence gathering.
That would be an important milestone in the case, but the plaintiffs may still be a long way from a victory.
Age discrimination cases are notoriously difficult to win, experts say, in part due to a 2009 Supreme Court ruling requiring plaintiffs to prove that age wasn’t just a factor, but a decisive factor, in their complaints.
And then there’s that issue of picking on the time-honored college tradition.
Hiring on campus, PwC’s lawyers wrote, “is the most efficient, reliable, and cost-effective way to fill a large number of entry-level positions” because colleges “contain large numbers of qualified, currently unemployed, and easily comparable potential applicants in one place, who are all seeking to begin employment at the same time.”
U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar, in a conversation last month with attorneys in the PwC case, suggested it may be hard to prove a wrongful motive behind the campus recruiting.
“How can I tell who is doing it for invidious reasons and who isn’t?”
The case is Rabin v. PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, 3:16-cv-02276, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).
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