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Gerontologist Demoted by University With a Pay Cut Alleges Discrimination Based on Age

Rachel Pruchno's fight against age discrimination at Rowan University highlights the persistence of bias in the workplace.
Cover Image Source: Gerontologist | Pexels | Photo by Ron Lach
Cover Image Source: Gerontologist | Pexels | Photo by Ron Lach

Although firms are promising to create more inclusive workplaces, discrimination remains rampant in several sectors on the basis of gender, sexuality, race and even age. Rachel Pruchno, a respected gerontologist with over four decades of research experience, is taking a stand against age discrimination after being demoted and experiencing a 30% pay cut at Rowan University. The 68-year-old academic, who served as the director of research at the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging, found herself unexpectedly stripped of her position and corner suite office just six months before her 69th birthday.

Image Source: Pexels|Photo by Karolina Grabowska
Image Source: Pexels | Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Pruchno's career at Rowan University was illustrious, marked by securing nearly $6 million in National Institutes of Health-funded research awards and 125 published articles in top journals. However, last June, she received an email informing her of the impending demotion and salary reduction, leaving her blindsided by the drastic changes.

The university's actions have been followed by allegations of age discrimination, with Pruchno and her labor union filing a formal grievance against the university and a complaint with the State of New Jersey's Office of Civil Rights.

According to the gerontologist, the news came without any prior complaints about performance issues, causing significant financial strain and emotional distress. "The emotional toll has been tremendous. You can't find a new job in 11 days," she said.

Scamsters are building traps for elderly people as they are not much tech-savvy and can be easily victimized by polite behavior|Pexels
Image Source: Photo by Pixabay | Pexels

The university justified stripping her of her director of research role, citing it as an "at-will" position, claiming they no longer required a director of research due to her purported lack of grant writing. However, Pruchno contested this assertion, explaining that the cessation of behavioral research under a new dean in 2019 hindered her grant-writing efforts.

Moreover, when she sought a plan to sustain grants post-retirement, her request was denied, despite her age of 65 at the time.

Pruchno's labor representative, Roger Johansen, asserts that the university failed to adhere to its union contract, which typically mandates a smaller salary reduction for administrators transitioning to faculty positions.

Unsplash | Photo by Centre for Ageing Better
Image Source: Unsplash | Photo by Centre for Ageing Better

To settle the dispute, the university offered the researcher a six-month sabbatical followed by a 30% pay cut, contingent upon signing a nondisclosure agreement. Pruchno rejected the offer, arguing that the agreement would absolve the university of any wrongdoing.

Despite receiving retroactive pay for the period of July through November, Pruchno's financial losses, including the sale of her home, remain irreparable. "When you have an older faculty member who has tenure, you can't get rid of them but you can torture them. And that's what happened," she said.

Image Source: Pexels | Photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova
Image Source: Pexels | Photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova

Johansen believes the 68-year-old has a strong case against the university.

"She has documented every email she sent, every interaction and she has every piece of paper from her evaluations. She's very careful on that type of thing," he said.

"Discriminating against employees because of their age flies in the face of everything I've worked hard at during my career, making life better for older adults," Pruchno said. She is now worried that what has happened to her could, and does, happen to others in their 60s.