UPDATE: Upon hearing what transpired, a Walgreens representative today apologized and attributed this isolated incident to an employee policy mistakenly applied to customers by the individual branch. I absolve Walgreens Co. of all responsibility for the events of last Sunday, and consider the matter resolved and closed.
With the exception of this past Sunday, I cannot recall an instance in my life when I was a victim of discrimination, nor was I ever witness to such. When the word discrimination is mentioned in ordinary, everyday conversation, most people immediately think about the Deep South before the Civil Rights era. Segregation reigned supreme until Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Act came along.
Granted, that does not mean that discrimination has been erased since the 1960s. Affirmative action, difficulties obtaining a job or a house due to race and women making less money than men for equal work are all prime examples of discrimination, either overt or subtle, in the past fifty years.
Fortunately, many of these issues have been addressed and have been either rectified or are close to be doing so. Affirmative action is a vestige of its former self, with the remnants likely to be struck down by the Supreme Court when they make their decision in the case Fisher v. University of Texas later this year. The practice of discriminatory lending has been banned, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is a huge step towards ensuring equal pay for equal work for both genders.
However, one type of discrimination is rarely talked about or addressed: age discrimination. This can manifest itself in the form of denying an older person employment on the basis that their health insurance will cost more than a younger worker. It can also mean to deny service to a customer on the basis of age.
Before I tell my story, I want to make clear that this is not a call for lowering the drinking age to 18 (even though I whole-heartedly agree with that proposition). It is a call for common sense on the part of businesses not to deny the right of someone 21 and over to purchase alcohol, regardless of the age of whomever they are accompanied by.
Last Sunday, I was home on Long Island for Columbus Day Weekend. Since I had to get two passport pictures taken for my study-abroad visa to Italy, we went to Walgreens to get them taken. While I was in the photo area, my mother picked up a bottle of wine in addition to other miscellaneous items. When my pictures were ready to be picked up, my mother pointed to a 12-pack of Coors Light on sale and asked me to carry it for her because her hands were full.
We both went up to the counter together. She put her items up, and I lifted up the pack of beer. The cashier then asked me for identification. I was confused for a second and told her that I was with my mother right next to me, merely helping her carry the case because it was heavy. She then refused to sell my mother the alcohol.
At this, my mother demanded an explanation. The cashier stated that due to Walgreens policy, my mother wasn’t allowed to buy the alcohol because she was accompanied by a minor. My mother pressed further and asked that if she had three children under the age of five in tow, whether or not she would be allowed to buy the alcohol. The cashier said that would be a different story.
I was incensed. My mother was obviously not a disorderly, drunk patron in the store. She had every right to buy alcohol, or any item for that matter, in the store. She was being discriminated against because of my age. My mother and I had violated no local, state, or federal law.
I couldn’t take this injustice anymore. I angrily said to the cashier, “This is age discrimination. She could take little kids with her into the store to purchase alcohol, yet you are not going to allow me to accompany her and help her when her hands are full? Do you want me to step outside the store for a second, so she’s not accompanied by someone within shooting distance of 21? If you are going to get technical, we can play that game. But if she drops anything, or if she hurts herself, I am going to hold you personally responsible.”
Sensing that I was poking major holes in her argument and that her side was a losing battle, the cashier called the manager up to the register and he too reiterated the Walgreens policy. Furious, my mother and I walked out of the store and left our items on the counter without paying.
There was no reason to suspect that the alcohol was for me, apart from my age. My mother and I walked up to the counter together, implying that she, being the older person, was making the purchase. When I was asked for identification, I refused to take it out of my wallet, because that would show intent to buy. In addition, I did not say I was buying, a verbal statement that would imply intent as well.
I help my mother carry alcohol to the register at other stores like King Kullen and Stew Leonards, and not once was my mother refused a purchase due to my age. I believe that this draconian policy of Walgreens is a form of age discrimination, is in violation of various civil rights laws and is ultimately unconstitutional. Not only that, but they went further than the letter of their policy, making a stated exception to legal adults that are accompanied by small children. This proves that they were discriminating against my mother not just on the fact that she was accompanied by a minor, but that she was accompanied by a minor that appeared to be over 18.
Do I blame the cashier or the manager for this horrible experience? No. They were merely following corporate policy. I fault Walgreens for this blatant practice of discrimination. As a result, my mother and I are boycotting Walgreens and my mother is planning to speak with a family friend who is a civil rights attorney about the matter. I urge everyone to boycott the store as well until this arcane policy is erased.