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Ceridian Corp., which posted strong first-quarter earnings last week, has struggled back from the dark days of the mid-'80s as a much smaller but profitable company.

The struggle has been less successful for the older workers jettisoned in the long and tortured comeback. Lawyers in a suit claiming that the company targeted older workers in successive rounds of layoffs contend that many of the plaintiffs have yet to find jobs paying anywhere near what they made at the former Control Data Corp."I'm doing work I was doing 35 years ago," said Duane Swanson, 62, a member of the liaison committee for about 300 former workers suing the company for age discrimination, a claim the company denies.

Swanson, a former senior manufacturing engineer, was laid off in May 1989 after 22 years at the Bloomington-based computer maker. He figures that he earns less than 50 percent of his former $50,000 salary - even with Social Security - doing electrical and mechanical assembly work.

Meanwhile, the eight-year-old suit lumbers on in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. This month, Judge John Tunheim affirmed an order to consolidate the 300-plus cases to consider whether there was a pattern of targeting older workers for layoffs. The cases may be tried individually after that point. Ceridian has asked the judge to petition the Court of Appeals to reconsider the consolidation; a decision is expected in the next several weeks.

The plaintiffs are seeking hundreds of millions in lost salaries and pension benefits. The case is scheduled to go to trial this fall.

Ceridian, Control Data's successor, maintains that age was not a factor in the decisions made during the massive layoffs of the 1980s.

Caught flat-footed during the computer revolution from hardware to software, Control Data lost more than $1 billion in the 1980s and reduced its work force from 60,000 in 1981 to 10,000 in 1990.

"We didn't obviously like to terminate anyone involuntarily," Ceridian spokeswoman Nancy Foltz said. "Those of us remaining will always feel badly about what happened, but it had to be done to survive."

But the plaintiffs in the case allege that Control Data used subjective appraisals and rankings to eliminate older workers during the work-force reductions from 1987 to 1990. They contend that the company was guided by stereotypes that older workers are less productive, resistant to change and less able to learn skills.

If they were, in fact, victims of those myths, their experiences are typical among the legions of U.S. middle managers shaved off the payrolls over the past decade, said Dennis Ahlburg, a professor of management and economics at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

"The perception is that age is great for furniture and wine but not for people."

While it is difficult for displaced middle managers to find comparable work, it is nearly impossible for them to land equivalent salaries, Ahlburg said. Generally, he said, they can expect to earn less than half. A substantial portion of the pay disparity results from the fact that, at least in the past, salaries were pegged to a worker's contribution to the company over the years.

"When you move to another company, you're just being paid for what you can deliver today," he said. "You have to basically reestablish your contribution to the company, to climb the ropes again."

Joyce Heinecke said she has heard younger workers snicker when she showed up to interview for a job. "I could do the job as well as most of them there," she said. "They won't even give you a chance."

Heinecke, 59, a former senior administrator in corporate purchasing, has not had a full-time job since she left Control Data in August 1988.

Swanson said employers keep telling him he's overqualified - a euphemism, he suggests, for too old.

In addition to being "overqualified," some of the former middle managers have had to contend with the fact that they spent the last stretch of their careers at Control Data focused on management instead of more marketable technological skills.

Sometimes even the management experience seems to be a liability. Robert Horton, 54, a former technical staff consultant who was laid off from Control Data in October 1989, got an inside look at hiring processes when he went to work for a small company. Part of his job involved participating in decisions on new hires; he found that older applicants seemed to be evaluated more critically, in part because managers in their 30s were reluctant to have more experienced subordinates.

"These 30- to 35-year-old managers are intimated by this person who is older than them," he said. "The younger managers don't want to look like they don't know as much as the people they supervise."

Being a plaintiff in a suit doesn't help, either, Vernon Burns said. Burns was a quality assurance chief when he was laid off in October 1987. He worked with two employment agencies trying to find work.

Potential employers "were looking at a 60-, 61-, 62-year-old person," he said. "They were looking at someone who was suing their former employer, too."

Burns eventually took a $4.35-an-hour job as an executive assistant to the president of a small company.

"I thought it might lead to better things, but then he sold the company."

Since then, Burns, who is now 68, has been working part-time.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)