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Highest court unanimously sides with older workers

The Supreme Court recently sided with two fire fighters who were laid off from a small mountaintop fire department. When they lost their jobs, they were the district’s oldest employees. The nation’s highest court agreed with them and their attorneys, declaring that federal law bars even that small department from discriminating against the firemen based on their ages.

 

Two veteran fire fighters fired for being old

The men were both hired in 2000 by the district deep in the Coronado National Forest high in the mountains at the edge of Tucson, Arizona. The pair saw the devastating, month-long Aspen Fire, which burned for a month and destroyed 340 buildings and 85,000 acres. They both rose to become full-time fire captains.

In 2008, they were laid off due to their ages. This open age discrimination was fine, the fire district and their attorneys said, because the veteran fire fighters were part of an organization with fewer than 20 employees and were therefore not protected by federal discrimination laws.

The Court revisits federal bans on age discrimination

The Supreme Court considered the case.

In 1967, age discrimination was outlawed at the federal level for private-sector employers with 20 or more employees. Fittingly, the law was called the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Seven years later, an amendment to the ADEA expanded the reach of the law to state and local governments as well as private businesses.

But the wording of that 1974 amendment seemed to expand the protections of ADEA to all state and local government entities, no matter how small. Since 1974, there have been confusing debates and court rulings about whether the “20 or more” rule applied to government employers.

Victory for older workers in small public workplaces

The unanimous decision allows the two fire fighters to sue the fire department for age discrimination. Their attorney believes the trail of evidence for the now clearly unlawful discrimination means a good chance of winning. And after the decision, they weren’t inclined to settle out of court.

While the fire department expressed concern that small government units would suddenly be paralyzed across America, Justice Ginsberg pointed out that most such employers had already assumed the law would apply to them and hadn’t yet been forced to close their doors.

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