Is Mandatory Retirement of Public Safety Workers Really Necessary?

Millions of older workers are still subject to forced retirement.

One of the problems with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) is that it arbitrarily forces federal law enforcement officers, among others, to retire even if they are demonstrably fit for duty.

In many cases, this means that  taxpayers lose the value of qualified and well-trained employees who are “put out to pasture” for no other reason than that they have reached an arbitrary age, usually 55. These employees often retire with generous taxpayer-funded pension benefits and go on to new careers, depriving the government of valuable skills and experience.

Why age 55?  There’s no reason for that date as opposed to any other, just as the traditional retirement age of 65 was essentially picked out of a hat  in 1889 by Germany’s  first Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.  If 55 made sense to Congress in 1967, when the ADEA was adopted, it makes little sense today due to medical advances that help people stay healthier far longer.

A reasonable plan for weeding out workers who are unqualified to do their jobs is one that is based upon measurable fitness parameters .And that’s where this really makes no sense.  Few would argue that an 89-year-old who wears glasses and uses a cane should be working as a firefighter – but he or she wouldn’t be if an employer requires officers to pass reasonable fitness requirements. Neither would  a 40-year-old firefighter or police officer who is obese and smokes two packs of cigarettes a day.  But a physically fit 56-year-old firefighter would be allowed to continue on the job.

A fitness test would eliminate employees who are not fit for duty and thus reduce the employer’s liability without compromising public safety.

The city of Laredo, TX, is considering a plan that is patterned after the ADEA’s mandatory retirement provision that would require police officers and firefighters to retire at a certain age or year of service with the department, whichever comes first. The plan was not accompanied by any justification for a mandatory retirement age, just some vague mumblings about the need to protect the public.

According to KGNS-TV, City Council members said the mandatory retirement proposal reflects concerns about cost saving, reducing the city’s liability, as well as ensuring that officers are able to perform their duties.  The combined salaries of police and fire department employees make up 63% of Laredo’s budget.

The proposed plan has encountered predictable opposition from both the police and fire department unions. “From our point, if the city wants to get people out because they think they are not fit … there’s already fit for duty mechanisms in place”, said Ramiro Paredes, President of the Laredo Police Officers Association .

The problem with fitness-for-duty programs is that they have to be implemented. Politicians don’t want to insure the public safety if it risks votes.

In the case of the ADEA, it doesn’t appear that cost savings is the primary issue. The ADEA;s mandatory retirement provision seems to persist due to sheer lethargy on the part of the United States’ “do nothing” Congress, which is content to keep shelling out taxpayer-funded pension benefits to workers who are being forced to retire (often against their will)  for arbitrary reasons.

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