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Federal appeals court rules that ADEA covers state agencies

Private sector employers in New York and around the country with 20 or more workers must follow the provisions of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. However, courts have disagreed on whether or not the 20-employee threshold should apply to state agencies like police and fire departments. A federal appeals court ruled on June 19 that the 1967 law covered public employers regardless of the size of their payrolls. An attorney representing the Arizona fire department involved said that the Supreme Court will likely be called upon to resolve the matter.

According to the ruling, the language of the ADEA makes clear that the 20-worker requirement, which was part of a 1974 amendment to the law, only applies to employers in the private sector. However, federal appeals court judges in four other cases came to a different conclusion. These judges read the same language and ruled that public sector employers with fewer than 20 workers were not covered by the 1967 law.

The case against the Arizona fire department was brought by two firefighters who were terminated at the ages of 46 and 54. The Ninth Circuit heard arguments in the case after a lower court summarily ruled against the plaintiffs based on the generally accepted interpretation of the age discrimination law's worker threshold provision. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which supported the firefighters by filing an amicus brief on their behalf, said in a statement that they welcomed the news of the ruling.

Workers in New York are protected by state as well as federal laws. New York residents who work for small companies may feel that they have few legal options when confronted with age discrimination in the workplace. However, attorneys with experience in this area could point out that the state's Human Rights Law covers employers with as few as four workers.

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