A federal judge has ordered New York City to pay $128 million in back wages to minority candidates who were not hired after taking the fire department test. The ruling is a final decision on a four-year-old class action lawsuit brought by the Vulcan Society. Up to 2,200 applicants who took the test in 1999 or 2002 and were not selected are eligible to receive payments. The decision from U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garufis orders New York City to hire 293 black and Latino applicants.
“We are quite elated about the judge’s decision. It talks to the fact that the fire department, at least 10 years ago, could have done something about it but chose not to,” said John Coombs, President of the Vulcan Society. “This is long overdue. We are optimistic about the outcome and we are looking forward to seeing more people of diverse backgrounds in the fire department.”
The Fire Department is currently 3% Black. Currently there are 29 women in the fire department; 4 are Vulcans. The fire department has 97% white supervision and 92% of the firefighter workforce is white. The racial composition of FDNY has remained the same for decades.
Coombs explained how the point advantage meant for city residents has been manipulated. The strengthening of the point advantage for city residents “should have been done a long time ago,” said Coombs. “That is the goal – to get more people in the inner city employed within the city. No one has a birth right or a family lineage that equates to them being hired first. All too often we find that individuals in the fire department had some relationship with a family member who has been there prior to them. That doesn’t automatically say that they are going to be in the fire department, nor should it allow them any special treatments. City residents deserve city employment. Our goal is to ensure that a great deal of the city power is used towards making sure city residents have better paying careers as firefighters.”
Regarding the validity of the test and what makes it biased, Coombs said there is information on tests that only people who have intimate knowledge of firefighting procedures would know.
“Individuals with fire background – the volunteer fire service – live upstate and out east, either on Long Island or upstate,” said Coombs. “When they are even one or two questions (on the test) where some insight of fire service or fire related codes or anything related to the fire department, they are given an unfair advantage” because the regular layperson wouldn’t know certain “terms of art” used within the FDNY.
Vulcan Society has arranged test preps and paid for the facilities and other materials. The fraternal organization have had full houses at all their tests preps.
“There are some individuals within the fire department who feel they have some sort of privilege. Somehow they got a copy of our e-mail and sent that to their group with the objective of overwhelming us in our own tutorials. I explained to our instructors that they had to explain to a few of them that the Vulcan society paid for, administers, and sets up our own test preps. They tried to overwhelm our facilities,” Coombs said. “Our goal is simple – we are going to reach out to the black and Hispanic communities. Beyond that, if we have to, we will help others, but we are not obligated to help them. We believe we have the right to service our community.” We are trying to help black people get in the fire department. We don’t have allegiance with people who don’t think we belong there in the first place.”
Coombs said “Mayor Bloomberg had the opportunity to make a difference, to see that city residents are employed. He chose do not stand for city residents, yet he is the mayor of New York City.”
“There is nothing Bloomberg can do to improve his legacy. On a racist issue like this, he is the mayor of the city. His concern should have been with the interests of New York City – to ensure people of this city are reasonably employed and those employment dollars circulated throughout the communities. He chose to ignore that. When he started as mayor, the Vulcan Society under Paul Washington’s administration, sat down with Mayor Bloomberg. He has a history of ignoring the issues concerning black people and people of diverse backgrounds,” Coombs said. “Bloomberg’s legacy is one of racism; you can quote me on that.”
Regarding the decision, Coombs said, “We are pleased and certainly hope the population as a whole would see [employment in the FDNY] for their children and grandchildren as a potential career and rewarding choice that they would see themselves in.”