NYC stops hiring firefighters amid long-running dispute over alleged entry-exam discrimination

By Colleen Long, AP
Friday, September 17, 2010

NYC stops hiring firefighters amid bias suit

NEW YORK — City officials on Friday said the Fire Department of New York won’t hire any firefighters until a new entry exam is created to replace one a federal judge said discriminated against minorities, which is expected to take at least a year.

A federal judge had ordered the city to choose one of five temporary methods for selecting applicants who had already passed the rejected exam as a way of adding to the department in the meantime. But the city’s law department said in a letter to the court that they wouldn’t select one because they all involved some sort of race-based quota.

“The hiring quotas … are bad public policy, and we believe not justified by the law,” said Corporation Counsel head Michael Cardozo.

It was the latest setback in a lengthy legal dispute with the federal government over discrimination claims at the mostly white fire department. U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled in August that the exam was unfair to black and Hispanic applicants after the Justice Department sued on their behalf in 2007.

Garaufis said the city used the exams to appoint more than 5,300 entry-level firefighters between 1999 and 2007, cheating at least 1,000 minority firefighters of chances to join a force of roughly 11,000 at the nation’s largest fire department. Of the 3,100 black candidates and 4,200 Hispanics who took the exam, the city appointed only 184 black and 461 Hispanic to the FDNY.

The judge said black and Hispanic applicants had disproportionately failed the written examinations and those who passed were placed disproportionately lower down the hiring lists than whites.

The city is appealing the decision.

Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgantheau had been asked to work with the city in developing the new test, but later resigned. Mary Jo White, a former U.S. attorney with the Southern District, took over.

She is tasked with developing a procedure for screening and selecting applicants who want to become firefighters and created the five temporary proposals that the city rejected.

Cardozo said 33 percent of the top test-takers waiting to be hired were minorities, which would have made for the most diverse class in the department’s history.

“Hiring candidates from that list would’ve had guaranteed that the city hired the most qualified firefighters while at the same time increasing the department’s diversity,” he said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on his radio program Friday morning that accusing the fire department of racism was unfair, and he spent years working with the commissioner to recruit diverse applicants.

“The bottom line is we just could never get … we were making progress … but we never got as diverse a group applying,” he said. “And if you had a big diverse group applying, you would have diversity in the results coming out the other end. We worked with schools, we had companies give us advertising content and creative, and distribution, pro bono. We worked very hard.”

Of the 11,214 uniformed members of the FDNY, 355 are black, 722 Hispanic, 82 Asian and 6 Native American. Most city residents are minorities.

As the new test is being developed, city officials said they’ll make up the difference by paying overtime to current firefighters — which costs nearly $2 million a month, attorneys have said.

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