Laid off at Spirit AeroSystems, workers seek to prove age bias

As the nation’s workforce ages and as many longtime workers claim they are being deliberately targeted for reductions, age discrimination complaints have been made more difficult to prove.

For more than four decades, manufacturing was the only work Donetta Raymond knew.

Fresh from high school, she followed her father to the factory floor because, she said, “It was the best-paying job around.”

Starting as a sheet-metal mechanic, Raymond found plenty of work in her hometown, Wichita, Kansas, home to famous names in aviation like Cessna, Beech and Boeing.

She applied her skills, eventually becoming a production-operation specialist on 737 airplane fuselages at Boeing’s sprawling facilities. Her work was praised consistently, including a good performance review in 2012 from the management of Spirit AeroSystems Holdings.

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The next year, she underwent a separate company review to gauge whether the company should retain her. Ominously, she slid to a “C” from her “A” rating the previous year.

And just a few months later, the company laid off hundreds of longtime workers, including her, then age 59. The layoffs were swift and blunt.

“They walked us out, and wouldn’t let us go back and say goodbye,” said a fellow worker, Debra Hatcher, 57, then a manufacturing-operations analyst. “They drove us to an empty parking lot, and that was it.”

Spirit AeroSystems — formed from Boeing’s 2005 sale of its Wichita division and Oklahoma operations — is an important supplier for Boeing, its biggest customer, and a rival, Airbus, chalking up nearly $1.7 billion in revenue in the first quarter of this year.

When it laid off 360 workers in summer 2013, the company was not closing down or moving jobs to Mexico or anywhere else. Spirit, which has 11,000 employees in Wichita and operations in Europe and Asia, said layoffs among its salaried employees and managers…

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