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U. S. Supreme Court OKs Preferences for Older Workers 03-14-2004
- By Ann F. Kiernan, Esq.

On February 24, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court said that federal age discrimination law is meant to protect older workers from preferential treatment given to younger workers, but the law does not apply in reverse.

In the case before the Court, a company and its union negotiated a collective bargaining agreement that eliminated the company's obligation to provide retiree health benefits, except for then-current workers at least 50 years old. A group of workers over 40-and therefore covered by federal age discrimination law-but under 50-and therefore not entitled to the benefits-sued. A federal appeals court agreed with them, finding that the law's prohibition of discrimination against "any individual ... because of such individual's age" was clear on its face. But, in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed, and threw out the workers' case. The Court reasoned that when Congress passed the age discrimination law in 1967, it was concerned solely with discrimination against older workers, and that the law "does not mean to stop an employer from favoring an older employee over a younger one."

This decision is the last word on federal law, of course, but several state courts have held that their states' anti-discrimination laws do not permit any age discrimination. So, employers in those states, New Jersey, Michigan, and Maine, cannot discriminate based on age, and cannot provide older employees with more favorable benefits than their younger coworkers without the risk of a lawsuit.

What this means to you: State law often provides employees with more rights than federal law. Learn about the laws that apply to your employer through our Managing Within the Law programs, and be sure to get local legal advice before instituting major benefit or policy changes.

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.
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