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EEOC accuses county of age discrimination

The Baltimore Sun

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore County government, accusing it of age discrimination in requiring older employees to pay more for their pensions.

The lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court, says the county has for years illegally forced some workers older than 40 to contribute to the county's pension system at a higher rate than that required of younger workers.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of two retired county correctional officers, demands that they and other workers be reimbursed money that it says was illegally withheld from their paychecks. The suit also calls for changes in the county's pension system.

"Our goal in this litigation is not to bankrupt the county," said Maria Salacuse, an EEOC lawyer. "Our goal is to change the system so individuals are contributing at a flat contribution rate."

A spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr. rejected the argument that the county's pension plan discriminates by age.

"The bottom line is the EEOC doesn't recognize the time value of money," said the spokesman, Donald I. Mohler. "An employee who comes to the county at 55 has less time for the county to build up their retirement fund than someone at age 20 who comes in."

Mohler said the county's defined-benefit pension plan has largely remained intact for six decades. The plan currently covers 9,500 active employees -- including police officers, firefighters and other government workers -- and 6,600 retired employees.

The percentage of a worker's paycheck that goes into the pension system is based on the worker's age at the start of employment, Mohler said.

For most government employees, the percentage generally ranges from 4.4 percent to 11 percent.

Salacuse said that under the county's plan, a younger worker's take-home pay would be larger than an older worker's, even if they were paid the same salary. She said that such a situation would violate the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibits discrimination through compensation against workers older than 40.

The EEOC filed the lawsuit Tuesday after a year of negotiations with the county, Salacuse said. The EEOC had been representing the two retired correctional officers, who won a ruling from the commission in a complaint against the county.

The officers were unavailable for comment yesterday, Salacuse said.

In addition to the county, the lawsuit names as defendants the county's labor unions, which completed a round of contract negotiations with the county this year.

Jim Miller, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, said he had not seen the EEOC lawsuit, adding, "I've never realized there was anything wrong with the retirement system."

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