Black firefighter discrimination lawsuit tab twice as high as expected
By Fran Spielman | City Hall Reporter
Chicago taxpayers must pay $78.4 million by Dec. 26 — twice as much as previously anticipated — to compensate nearly 6,000 African-American would-be firefighters bypassed by the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 entrance exam, a plaintiff’s attorney disclosed Monday.
Last year, the city agreed to hire 111 bypassed black firefighters and pay $30 million to $40 million in damages to about 5,900 others who would never get that chance to comply with a federal judge’s order.
Now, the actual damages have been calculated, and they’re much higher than previously anticipated.
Back pay alone for the 5,850 people who did not get jobs will total $59.7 million, according to plaintiffs’ attorney Matt Piers. Of that money, $51.4 million will be distributed to individuals. The remaining $8.3 million will be deposited in the firefighters pension fund as the employees’ contribution for the 111 lucky enough to get hired.
The city is also responsible for contributing another $18.7 million for its share of pension liability for the newly hired firefighters.
That brings the total tab to $78.4 million. The checks must go out and pension deposit made by Dec. 26, according to a court order.
Why is the price tag so much higher than anticipated?
“We projected $40 million, but that was an educated guess that turned out to be way too low once we got payroll data that allowed us to calculate actual wage increases over time,” Piers said.
“The lesson from all of this is that the closed-mindedness of the prior [Daley] administration ended up being incredibly expensive. If the city had hired at random from among those who passed the test, like plaintiffs’ counsel asked them to do before the lawsuit was filed, there would have been no violation of the law and no massive back-pay award. And instead of paying cash to people who didn’t work for the city, they would have been paying people to fight fires.”
Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago said the $78.4 million tab is in the hands of the Law Department and he has no idea whether the higher-than-anticipated price tag would blow a hole in the city’s 2012 budget.
Piers noted that, of the 5,850 bypassed black candidates who did not get jobs, only 4,674 people have filed claims. They have until midnight Saturday to stake their online claims at chicagofirefightersclassaction.com. If none of the missing file claims, individual checks will be closer to $11,000, he said. If they do, cash awards will range from $9,000 to $10,000 per person.
The 1995 firefighters entrance exam was drafted by an African American with an eye toward diversifying a Chicago Fire Department with a long and documented history of discrimination.
When results for minorities were disappointing, the city established a cutoff score of 89 and hired randomly from the top 1,800 “well-qualified” candidates.
In 2005, a federal judge ruled that the city’s decision had the effect of perpetuating the predominantly white status quo, because 78 percent of those “well-qualified” candidates were white.
Five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed that African-American candidates did not wait too long before filing their lawsuit.
Earlier this year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel showed up unannounced at the fire academy to deliver a pep talk to the 111 middle-aged black firefighters who waited 17 years to realize their dream of becoming Chicago firefighters. He told the rookies that the city “made a mistake” in how it handled the 1995 exam and that, “You are about correcting that mistake.”
The Fire Department’s age limit for new hires is 38. That did not apply to the 111 black firefighters because the discrimination occurred before the cutoff was established.
The older rookies, most of who will graduate Nov. 1, entered the fire academy amid concern about how many would survive the grueling six-month training and how well those rookies would be accepted by the rank-and-file, once they get assigned to firehouses.
“Some people have required multiple opportunities to pass some of the major tests. A handful are still doing re-testing. Some couldn’t complete the training due to physical injuries. They’ll be held over to a future class. But nobody’s washed out yet,” Piers said.
“They’re in their late 30s and late 40s, much older than typical classes. Like most of us, they’re in worse shape. But given those factors, we’re very happy with their progress.”
Santiago noted that many of the older rookies have shadowed ambulances as part of their training to become emergency medical technicians.
“They ride the ambulances, so they actually stay in the firehouse. It gives them an opportunity to see what the environments are. But also, the officers get to look at ’em and see how they’re doing,” he said.
“Some of the feedback we’ve gotten back from the field has been really, really positive and that’s usually a good sign because those are firemen.”