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Meeting of July 15, 2009 – Age Discrimination in the 21st Century-Barriers to the Employment of Older Workers

Statement of Dennis Halfhill

My name is Dennis Halfhill. I am 67 years old and live in Fort Wright Kentucky. I worked for more than 20 years for National Distillers Products Company as an Assistant Division Traffic Manager until the distribution department was moved to Clermont Kentucky, about two and a half hours away. I then obtained a position with the Kenton County Sheriff on December 23, 1991. I worked there first as an office deputy (for one year), then as court bailiff for almost a year and I then went through the police academy and became a road deputy after graduation in February 1994. As a road deputy, I performed general police duties including traffic stops, traffic accident investigations, serving warrants, transporting prisoners and backing up police agencies in Northern Kentucky. I was classified as a hazardous service employee for purposes of benefits through the Kentucky Retirement System.

In December 1997 I was injured in the course of duty. I was 56 years old. I was delivering a trial subpoena and my cruiser was hit by another motorist. The other car ran through a red light and broadsided me. The driver’s side door of my cruiser was hit and my cruiser was knocked into a pedestrian sign post. When my cruiser was hit on left side, it threw me against the pointy heavy metal chrome handle of the cruiser’s side spotlight. The handle jabbed into my shoulder and it felt like I was hit with a baseball bat in the shoulder. I suffered rotor cuff, neck and tendon damage. At the time of the incident, I was in perfect health, ran about a mile a day and had no plans to retire from the sheriff’s department. My performance appraisals were always excellent and approximately two months prior to the incident, I had been told that there were plans to make me a supervisor. At the time of the accident, I was earning around $34-35,000 and received health insurance benefits at no cost. I had two sons, age 26 and 28 living at home and attending school.

After the accident, I had to take off for 1-2 days due to the pain but I expected to fully recover. I continued working on regular duty for the Sheriff’s department but was in pain and experienced numbness. After one year of therapy there was little improvement so I had an operation in June 1999 to correct the rotor cuff damage and was placed on light duty after the operation. After three months, I was sent for testing and they determined that I still could not perform all of the regular job duties and my doctor was unable to tell me exactly how long it would take to recover. He said that it could take 3-4 years. Because I needed 100% use of both arms in order to be permitted to perform my job, the Sheriff and the Chief Deputy told me in September 1999, that I needed to apply for disability retirement because they could not keep me on light duty any longer.

I applied for disability retirement on September 22, 1999 when I was 57 yeas old. I received a letter back from Kentucky Retirement Systems on September 29, 1999 stating that I was ineligible for disability retirement because I was over 55 years old, too old to qualify. I was told that I needed to take regular retirement. Because I wanted to keep working, I searched for other county and state jobs but none were available at the time. I had to take regular retirement, which based on my 8 years of service, amounts to approximately $550 a month. If I had received disability retirement, I would have gotten up to 8 additional years of imputed service which would have doubled my monthly pension to about $1100 a month and I would have been allowed to hold a non-hazardous position, if one became available, while receiving hazardous disability benefits.

Also, if I had received disability retirement, because I was a hazardous employee injured in the course of duty, my health insurance benefits would be paid in full. Because I was not allowed to take disability retirement, it would cost me 75% of the cost of health insurance premiums or $400 per month if I wanted to continue to get health insurance through the state. At age 57 I was 8 years away from eligibility for Medicare. Compared to some I was lucky because I could get health insurance benefits through my wife’s employer. That insurance cost less than the $400 I would have had to pay for coverage through the state, but it was still costly. My wife had been paying $125 a month for individual coverage and when we switched to family coverage there was an increase of $225 per month for a total monthly premium of $350 per month. As you can see, more than half of my monthly retirement benefit from KRS is used to by health insurance.

I searched for alternate employment and after being told many times that I was either underqualified or overqualified, got a part time job in July 2000 at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Kentucky as a security officer. This job was to fill in for other employees and I received $15 an hour with no benefits. I now work at St. Elizabeth’s at the information desk, approximately 7 to 14 hours a week earning almost $17 an hour with no benefits.

After I was denied disability retirement, I spoke with a member of the KRS Board. He said that it was not right that I had been denied disability retirement and that age should be eliminated as a requirement. He told me that he had argued in my favor before the board but that they disagreed. I retained a lawyer who filed suit for me in state court in October 1999. I lost at the trial court level on summary judgment, won in the state appellate court but lost in the state supreme court. The Judge there ruled that I was discriminated against but it wasn’t intentional and they were following the federal court. It cost me about $20,000. My lawyer said if I wanted to do anything further, such as petition the Supreme Court, it would cost an additional $25,000 which I did not have and my chances were 50% at best.

At that point I was aware that the EEOC had filed a suit against Kentucky Retirement Systems in Federal Court and that I was a class member and I hoped that the EEOC might be able to get relief on my behalf. After many years of litigation, it’s my understanding that the Supreme Court said that I wasn’t discriminated against based on age. All I know is that if I had been younger than 55 when I applied for disability retirement, I’d be much better off than I am today. I hope that something can be done which will correct the injustice that I and other older workers suffered and will continue to suffer.

I don’t see how it can be anything but age discrimination when you are told that you are ineligible for benefits solely based on your age. It is especially concerning when your disability is the result of an injury in the line of duty.