The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against Houston-based retailer Mattress Firm this week, saying company officials made life difficult for older employees in Las Vegas as part of a systematic effort to replace them with younger workers.
The age discrimination complaint filed Monday in federal court in Nevada names the large chain and 15 unspecified people as defendants.
"Store managers and salespersons over 40 years of age endured Mattress Firm's campaign to edge them out upon the retail giant's 2007 acquisition of a Las Vegas mattress chain," EEOC officials said in a statement. "Ultimately, older workers felt compelled to quit or were otherwise forced out."
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Mattress Firm officials at the company's Houston headquarters didn't immediately provide comment to The Associated Press on Tuesday.
EEOC officials claim the discrimination began when Mattress Firm acquired a Las Vegas chain, Bedtime Mattress, in March 2007. Almost all the employees in the Las Vegas stores were 40 or older at the time of the acquisition, but within five months, only a quarter of the staff was 40 or older, according to the suit.
Mattress Firm officials described the older employees as "stuck in their ways," "resistant to change" and "very old," according to the complaint. The company set a goal to replace 90 percent of them with younger employees.
Filing a suit is a rare step for the commission, which has been investigating the discrimination claims and trying to negotiate a settlement with Mattress Firm since the case came to its attention in 2007, according to EEOC spokeswoman Christine Park-Gonzalez.
"The loss of a job can be devastating for older workers," said Anna Park, an EEOC attorney whose jurisdiction includes southern Nevada. "The EEOC will vigorously enforce the Age Discrimination in Employment Act to protect older workers who face discrimination on the job."
The suit claims Mattress Firm started ordering older employees to perform physically demanding tasks, such as unloading heavy mattresses and posting banners in high places without help, while employees in other Mattress Firm stores got help from porters for those kinds of tasks.
Older employees were also barred from attending a weeklong training in Houston called "Mattress Firm University" and were instead given a less comprehensive, two-day course in Las Vegas, the suit said.
Plaintiffs said they were not encouraged to apply for promotions, and some said they were demoted or transferred to undesirable stores.
Commission officials claim Mattress Firm overstaffed the stores with younger "ambassadors" from out of state, paying them with salary and commission while older employees only made commission.
According to the suit, upper management instructed the district manager to "fill them up with a bunch of salespeople around them, so they don't make a commission, so they don't make any money. Then they usually go off on their own."
Mattress Firm operates more than 1,100 locations in 28 states, according to the company's website.