Mandatory retirement for firefighters not discriminatory, Tribunal holds
Mandatory retirement provision is reasonably necessary to accomplish health and safety purposes
Can firefighters be forced to retire? In Espey v. City of London and London Professional Fire Fighters’ Association, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario determined that the mandatory retirement of suppression firefighters at age 60 does not breach the Human Rights Code.
The collective agreement between the City of London and the London Professional Fire Fighters’ Association required suppression firefighters to retire at age 60. Edwin Espey, a district chief, filed a human rights complaint when he was required to retire. He took the position that the mandatory retirement provision constituted discrimination on the basis of age, contrary to the Human Rights Code. The Ontario Human Rights Commission supported his case.
The City and the Association conceded that the mandatory retirement provision was prima facie discriminatory. However, they maintained that mandatory retirement was a bona fide occupational requirement for suppression firefighters. Therefore, they had not violated the Code in agreeing to the mandatory retirement provision.
The City and the Association introduced expert evidence that established that the risk of cardiac events, including heart attacks, increases dramatically with age and that the risk is even higher for firefighters engaged in fire suppression. They maintained that their decision to deal with these higher risks through a mandatory retirement provision was reasonable and that changing the mandatory retirement provision would constitute undue hardship.
The Tribunal’s decision
The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario agreed with the City and the Association. It held that the expert evidence demonstrated that there are particular factors about the occupation of firefighters that lead to an exceptionally elevated risk of cardiac events. While methods of individual testing exist that predict risk more accurately than age, there was no scientific research demonstrating that those methods would work with firefighters, given the particular risks they face. Further, the system of mandatory retirement included protection through an unreduced pension, applied to all firefighters equally. This meant that testing all individual firefighters, which might raise claims of discrimination, could be avoided.
The Tribunal concluded that the City and the Association had successfully demonstrated that the mandatory retirement provision is reasonably necessary to accomplish its health and safety purposes and that modifying it would cause undue hardship. As a result, it held, there was no violation of the Code.