Federal Diary by Joe Davidson

Federal Diary: Too Old for Foreign Service Work?

By Steve Vogel
Friday, October 2, 2009

On Nov. 3, 2008, Elizabeth Colton, a Foreign Service officer, received an e-mail with good news: She had been offered a two-year posting as chief of the political-economic section at the U.S. Embassy in Algiers.

"Congratulations!" wrote Maggie Nardi, acting director of the Office of Maghreb Affairs in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. "On behalf of NEA and Embassy Algiers, it is my pleasure to offer you a handshake to the 02 Political/Economic Counselor position opening in summer of 2009."

A delighted Colton immediately accepted. But eight days later, before the "handshake" offer was made official by an assignment panel, Colton received an e-mail from Jeffrey D. Feltman, then the principal deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs. "Liz, I apologize, but I have an awkward question, but it's one that HR tells me I should ask," he wrote.

Would the tour of duty in Algiers be completed before she turned 65, the mandatory retirement age for Foreign Service officers, Feltman asked.

It would not. Colton will be 65 in August 2010, which would be midway through the tour. The offer was withdrawn.

Last month, Colton filed suit in federal court against Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton alleging age discrimination, and that the age restriction was unconstitutional and based on outdated stereotypes.

The Foreign Service Act of 1980 mandates retirement at 65, having raised it from 60, and the policy based on the rigors of overseas service. But it does not apply to political appointees -- among them, high-profile diplomatic envoys such as Richard C. Holbrooke, 68, or George Mitchell, 76, or, for that matter Clinton, who will be 65 in October 2012.

"Imagine if someone told Hillary Clinton she couldn't be secretary of state because she would turn 65 before her term is up," said Thomas R. Bundy III, a lawyer representing Colton.

Last month, a report from the Government Accounting Office warned that the State Department is understaffed at many hardship posts, such as Algiers. "State's diplomatic readiness remains at risk due to persistent staffing and experience gaps at key hardship posts," the report stated.

"There's the irony that top-qualified people are unable to serve at the same time the State Department is in the horrible situation of being understaffed," said Susan Hutha, a lawyer also representing Colton who is with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

Susan R. Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents 23,000 active and retired Foreign Service employees, primarily from State and the Agency for International Development, said the restriction is unrealistic.

"AFSA thinks that there are a number of sound reasons to consider raising the age of mandatory Foreign Service retirement beyond 65, including but not limited to the expertise many older employees possess that is badly needed, and a general trend towards entry into the Foreign Service somewhat later in life," Johnson said.

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