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2014-03-19

Black, Latino Firefighters in New York City Settle Long-Running Suit over Racial Discrimination

Guests

Paul Washington, past president of the black firefighters’ group, the Vulcan Society of Black Firefighters, and captain of Engine 234 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He was one of the Fire Department of New York employees who raised the original Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint about the department’s racial makeup.

Richard Levy, lead attorney representing black firefighters in a lawsuit against the City of New York over discriminatory hiring practices, and a senior partner of the law firm Levy Ratner, which specializes in workers’ rights cases.

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Some 1,500 Black and Latino applicants to the Fire Department of New York have settled a long-running lawsuit with the city and the Justice Department over racially discriminatory hiring practices at the nation’s largest fire department. The agreement grants almost $100 million in back pay to those impacted. When the case was filed in 2007, the Fire Department was 90 percent white, even though African Americans and Latinos totaled half the city’s population. Under the new agreement, the Fire Department will be required to change its recruiting policies in order to increase diversity and make the department more representative of the city’s population. We discuss the settlement with two guests: Paul Washington, past president of the black firefighters’ group, the Vulcan Society of Black Firefighters, and captain of Engine 234 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; and Richard Levy, the case’s lead attorney.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Some 1,500 black and Latino applicants to the Fire Department of New York have settled a long-running lawsuit with the city and the Justice Department over racially discriminatory hiring practices at the nation’s largest fire department. The agreement grants almost $100 million in back pay to those impacted. When the case was filed in 2007, the Fire Department was 90 percent white, even though African Americans and Latinos totaled half the city’s population. Under the new agreement, the Fire Department will be required to change its recruiting policies in order to increase diversity and make the department more representative of the city’s population.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the latest discrimination lawsuit settled by New York since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office 10 weeks ago. The city also settled a case over its Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk program and another case that sought to block a law allowing individual officers to be sued for racial profiling.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. Paul Washington is past president of the black firefighters’ group, the Vulcan Society of Black Firefighters, and captain of Engine 234 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He was one of the Fire Department of New York employees who raised the original Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint about the department’s racial makeup. And Richard Levy is with us, lead attorney representing the black firefighters, senior partner of the law firm Levy Ratner, and worked on the case with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Paul Washington, let’s begin with you. What is the significance of this latest development and the settlement?

PAUL WASHINGTON: Well, first, thanks for having me on.

And the significance is, this is one more victory in a long fight that we’ve had with the city over excluding blacks and other people of color from the Fire Department. It’s been a long battle. It’s been a 150-year battle. The Fire Department is actually 150 years old in New York City, and they’ve never hired blacks, women or people of color in any type of substantial number. So this is another victory.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us the numbers again on the percentage of people of color in this fire department, that’s the largest in the country, second largest in the world?

PAUL WASHINGTON: Right. Right now blacks are about 4 percent of the Fire Department, Hispanics maybe about 8 or 9 percent. And actually, those are the highest numbers we’ve ever had in the Fire Department percentage-wise. It’s never been below 90 percent white male. So now it’s about 86—86, 87 percent white male. And that’s where it stands.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Richard Levy, you’ve been working on this case. Can you explain how the New York City Fire Department compares to other fire departments across the U.S. and why it’s been so disproportionately white?

RICHARD LEVY: Well, it’s the worst in the country. There is no fire department in any substantial city that has had a worse record on diversity than the New York City Fire Department. And it’s been chastised for that for decades, including by federal courts, but for some reason, the administrations have not chosen, until now, to take steps to remedy an obvious problem.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But why in New York City? Why has New York City’s Fire Department been so bad, if other departments in the country have not reflected this kind of prejudice?

RICHARD LEVY: Well, the truth is that most departments around the country have changed because of lawsuits. For some reason—and I guess we know the reason, really, and Paul could probably talk about it better than I. But it’s a terrific job being a firefighter. If you ask most any firefighter what they think of the job, they’ll tell you it’s absolutely wonderful. It’s exciting. There are short days. They work eight days a month. The pay is good. They’re well respected. It’s, in that sense, a very good job. So the whites, who have basically controlled the jobs and the departments over many, many years, have seen to it that their kids and their family members and their relatives go into those jobs after they’re in them, and so it’s become an enclave. It’s become a protected area of white privilege, in a sense. And so the courts had to intervene, really, to see that steps were taken that others could join.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Washington, can you talk about the original Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint? Give us the examples of discrimination.

PAUL WASHINGTON: Well, in 2002, we first filed that complaint, and it alleged that—you know, that there was discrimination throughout the department, everything from how they recruit, when the test for the job comes out about once every four years, and the Fire Department would put forth a pitiful effort to recruit blacks into the job. That was one of our complaints.

Another complaint was the test that they were giving was no indication of how good a firefighter you would become, but it managed to put blacks down at the bottom of the list. Blacks would always score not as well as whites on the test. And that would be fine if the guy who got a hundred was going to be better than the person who got a 90 or an 85, but that wasn’t the case. Everybody knew that wasn’t the case. So, there were things like that. There was a five points—there’s a five points residency that’s given to anyone who’s a New York City resident. There was vast—a vast amount of cheating going on. People from Long Island and upstate were still getting those five points, which was critical to getting a job.

So those were some of the complaints that we brought in 2002, and now here we are, what, almost 15 years later, 13 years later—my math is kind of bad—12 years later, and we’re now just finally settling this lawsuit.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Paul, what were some of the questions in the entrance exams that you feel didn’t necessarily address how good a firefighter would be, but somehow managed to exclude the majority of black or Latino applicants?

PAUL WASHINGTON: Well, if you looked at the test, you couldn’t really find—there was no smoking gun. There was no question that you could say, "Oh, this question would be harder for a black applicant to answer than a white applicant." But it’s just like the SAT test, for example. You know, blacks just don’t do as well on the test. And if it’s job-related, that’s fine, but we knew, and the city knew, all along, that they could not prove that that test was job-related.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul, can you talk about how you ended up in the New York Fire Department?

PAUL WASHINGTON: Easy. My father was a firefighter. My older brother was a firefighter. I had two cousins who were firefighters. As Richard said, it’s a father-son type of job. Most people don’t realize how good the job is unless they have some type of close connection like that, which I had, which is a tremendous advantage in getting onto the job. To have a close relative is—it puts you leaps and bounds ahead of others, for many different reasons. The motivation—you obviously have more motivation. You know the proper steps to take to become a firefighter. If you’ve had some type of background issue—maybe you had a DUI, or maybe you had some type of a medical problem—a lot of times, you know, your father would be able to smooth those things over. And that was all proven in the case that we brought.

AMY GOODMAN: So your father must have been one of the only African Americans in the New York Fire Department.

PAUL WASHINGTON: My father was either the first or the second black firefighter in Staten Island. He joined the Fire Department in 1956 when there was blatant discrimination. Commissioner Cassano has stated, over the course of his 40 years in the Fire Department, he never saw discrimination. He said that under oath. He never saw—my father, myself, we’ve seen enough discrimination for him and everybody else. There’s been plenty of discrimination in the Fire Department. And my father and people of his era had it much harder than I ever did.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Richard Levy, could you talk about what you think some of the changes are within the Fire Department of New York that are likely to be initiated as a consequence of this settlement?

RICHARD LEVY: Yeah, I think there are going to be significant changes, partly because of the case and partly because I think there’s a new attitude at City Hall. Under the new settlement, the settlement that was reached last week, we’re going to have a chief diversity officer in the department who is going to be responsible solely for dealing with racial problems in the department, recruiting in the department and so on. There has been a lot of—a lot of tension around race in the Fire Department. There was a public hearing—a fair hearing, they call it—in court a year or so ago, and hundreds of whites signed up to complain about the case and to complain about changing the test, knowing nothing about what the changes would be and that the test was going to be more job-related than it ever had been, but they were just screaming about any change. So I think we’re going to see real changes from that. We now have a recruiting quota, which we never had before. So I think there’s going to be a real requirement that the department step up its game on bringing more minorities into the department.

AMY GOODMAN: How much did you win exactly? How much was the settlement?

RICHARD LEVY: The monetary part of the settlement will be in excess of $98 million: $98 million is the amount that represents lost back pay and lost benefits.

AMY GOODMAN: How much will this mean for individual firefighters?

RICHARD LEVY: Well, it could range up to hundreds of thousands of dollars to a firefighter who could have been hired on this job, but for the discrimination that took place in various steps of the hiring process.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the difference between Mayor Bloomberg and Mayor de Blasio in dealing with the settlement, because it’s spanned both tenures?

RICHARD LEVY: Well, it’s a night-and-day difference. I have to say that this case, as Paul suggested, should have been settled ages ago. It was an obvious situation. The test was clearly bad. They had never tried to clean it up or tried to look at its validity, what we call validity in the legal parlance. And there had been findings. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, federal commission, had made a finding.

The Equal Employment Practices Commission, an agency of New York City, back in 2000, had said, "There’s a problem with these tests. We think they’re no good. Commissioner Scoppetta, why don’t you check out these tests?" And the commissioner said, "No, I don’t think we need to do that." And so they went to the mayor—something they had done only twice in the history of the Equal Employment Practices Commission—and they said, "Mayor, tell the commissioner he really has to check out these tests." And the mayor said, "I don’t think we need to do that." So, that was the Bloomberg administration.

The de Blasio administration, when we came in and we said, "Look, we should—we should wrap this up. It’s creating more tension in the department. It shouldn’t go on. It’s obvious that changes have to be made," they said, "Yeah, it looks like changes really have to be made." We sat down. We created a settlement very quickly with the new corp counsel, Zach Carter, who understood the issue and approached it from the standpoint of, "Well, let’s talk about what we can do to improve." Night-and-day situation.

And my view is that the $98 million bill should be sent directly to Mayor Bloomberg personally, because he could have settled this case several years ago for $10 million. And there was a back-pay meter that was running during all that time, so all these people were building up back pay that finally wound up at $98 million, because he, I think very arrogantly, would not allow a settlement to happen in this case.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Paul Washington, are you worried at all about backlash against present black firefighters in the department who might be upset at this ruling—I mean, sorry, from the rank and file who may be upset at the ruling?

PAUL WASHINGTON: No, not really. But honestly, the issues, the racial issues that occur in firehouses, will never really be adequately addressed until there are enough black firefighters, women firefighters, Hispanic firefighters in those firehouses. I mean, it’s one thing when you’re a black firefighter and you’re the only black firefighter working in that house on a particular tour. You know, it might just be you and 12 white firefighters. That’s one atmosphere. But when there’s three or four black firefighters, or two or three black firefighters, two or three Hispanic firefighters, a woman firefighter in that group, it’s a whole different dynamic. It’s a much more comfortable atmosphere for those women and firefighters of color.

AMY GOODMAN: Do black or Latino firefighters who are in the department get any of the settlement money?

PAUL WASHINGTON: Some who came into the department later than they should have will be eligible for some of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you? Will you?

PAUL WASHINGTON: No, no, no. This affected firefighters who took the test in 1999 or 2002.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, why did you fight so hard for this?

PAUL WASHINGTON: Well, you know, I just—I just thought that it is a great job, and it was a job that needs to be open to all New Yorkers. You know, everyone needs to share in this job—black, Hispanic, Asian. And I knew that there was no reason that blacks were being excluded—no good reason that blacks were being excluded. So, you know, it was a fight that I was glad to take on.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, congratulations to both of you and to the Vulcan Society. I want to thank you both for being with us. Paul Washington is past president of the Vulcan Society of Black Firefighters, one of the Fire Department of New York employees who raised the original Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint about the department’s racial makeup. And thanks to Richard Levy, lawyer for the black firefighters, who sued New York City over the discriminatory hiring. Again, New York City’s Fire Department, largest in the country, second largest in the world.

When we come back, sailors and marines are suing the nuclear power company in Japan for radiation exposure they suffered coming to the aid of the Japanese after the Fukushima meltdown. Stay with us.

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