Residents served by the Port Washington Fire Department will vote on whether to eliminate -- in seven separate elections -- part of a retirement benefit program called discriminatory by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The commission's ruling in May 2014 agreed with firefighters from the department who claimed the program -- which rewards members for up to 40 years of service but not past age 65 -- was discriminatory. At issue is $404,000 in retroactive pay to approximately 50 firefighters in the department, officials said.
The EEOC's New York District Commissioner, Kevin J. Berry, wrote in the decision that the department's Length of Service Award Program, commonly known as LOSAP, had "discriminated against a class of fire and emergency service personnel."
The Town of North Hempstead and six villages, which each have contracts with the Port Washington Fire Department, must separately vote yes to approve removing the age limit by Sept. 30 in order to comply with the EEOC ruling, officials said.
If any municipality fails to pass the proposition, they must look to the EEOC "for direction as part of the conciliation process," said Mitchell Pitnick, North Hempstead's senior deputy town attorney.
The town, along with the villages of Port Washington North and Flower Hill, will hold referendums on Thursday, while the villages of Sands Point, Plandome Manor, Baxter Estates and Manorhaven have yet to schedule theirs.
The Port Washington Fire Department joins a growing number of municipalities where firefighters have challenged the age restriction and entered into settlement talks. Other communities that have confronted this issue -- through settlements or referendums -- include the Oyster Bay, Brentwood, Amityville, Bayville and Mineola fire departments, according to the website for the state comptroller's office.
Bill Young, an attorney for the state Association of Fire Districts in Albany, estimated there are about 400 fire districts with LOSAPs in New York, and about half of those districts have removed the age restriction.
While firefighters work as volunteers and are not part of the state pension system, they can earn points through LOSAP. The program was created in 1988 as a way to retain firefighters. According to Berry's decision, the monthly maximum benefit for Port Washington firefighters with 40 years of work is $800.
Pitnick said "when these plans were adopted, it was thought that people would start [in the fire departments] when they were 18 or 20 and work as volunteers, reach the maximum of 40 years, and then leave." But, he said, "people live longer and people probably join later."