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May 10, 2002
Calif. Court Hears Age and Benefits Case
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California Supreme Court sent strong signals this week that it's ready to allow employers in that state to discriminate against workers over 40 when it comes to on-the-job benefits and privileges.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that based on the questions they asked at an hour-long hearing Wednesday, the justices clearly sided with Union Oil Co. of Orange County.

The company was sued after agreeing to pay for graduate studies for three employees who were 40 or younger but turned down a similar request from a 56-year-old telecommunications specialist.

A ruling, which the court must issue within 90 days, could reach far beyond tuition payments to affect everything from working hours, vacation pay, and sick leave to stock options.

"This covers just about everything you can think of in the workplace," Unocal's attorney, David Ozeran of Los Angeles, told the justices. That broad impact, he said, is why the issue should be left up to state lawmakers and not the court.

The Chronicle reports that the seven justices appear to be operating on the consensus that they are bound by the expressed wording of a state discrimination law. It protects older workers from being unfairly fired but makes no mention of guaranteeing them equal benefits and privileges.

Justice Joyce Kennard noted that the general civil rights law - which specifically mentions "terms, conditions or privileges of employment" - forbids discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, marital status. But there's no mention of age.

"Courts cannot read into the statute that which the Legislature did not include," Kennard said. "Any remedy would have to come from the Legislature."

She noted that the state Legislature passed a bill in 1998 specifically protecting older employees from discrimination in benefits and privileges, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson.

Dan Esberg said he was suing Unocal out of principle when his bosses in 1994 refused to finance his pursuit of a master's degree in business administration. The company, which had urged all employees to get a college diploma, had paid the $16,000 tuition for Esberg's undergraduate degree.

His supervisors denied that they were discriminating against Esberg because of his age, saying they had issues with his job performance.

To read the San Francisco Chronicle article, click here.

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