The California Department of Consumer Affairs last week told 23 of its oldest employees — including one who is 81 — they must retire by the end of the year, having for years overlooked a state law requiring them to retire when they turned 65.
Hundreds more employees statewide might have been affected. On Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called the order off.
The governor's Cabinet secretary, Scott Reid, scolded State and Consumer Services Agency Secretary Bill Leonard in a letter Friday afternoon, saying, "While I recognize this state law has been in place for some time, it has not been uniformly enforced and is simply discriminatory on its face."
The consumer affairs employees are business inspectors and other civilian workers reclassified by the Legislature as safety employees in 2004, officials said. The designation entitled the employees to more lucrative retirement benefits but also imposed mandatory retirement at age 65.
"Apparently this had not come to anyone's attention until recently," department spokesman Russ Heimerich said before Friday's reversal.
If the agency was surprised to come across the law, some employees were downright startled by it.
"I said, 'What the heck is this?'" said Tony Wilson, who is 71 and investigates complaints against automobile repair shops.
Wilson said that in 2004, when his position was reclassified, mandatory retirement was not mentioned.
"It never came up," he said. "I wasn't planning on doing 20 years, obviously, but I was planning on doing a couple of more."
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