Racial discrimination in New York among the firefighting ranks could cost the city upwards of $130 million.
Our New York City labor and employment lawyers understand that this entire affair has impacted a fine institution, lauded for its many sacrifices and accomplishments. But discrimination in any form is unacceptable, and it's especially disheartening when it is allowed to persist at any level of an organization.
For decades, there had been whispers and knowing nods that there was racial discrimination at the New York Fire Department. A simple look at the demographics reveals the startling truth: The department is more than 90 percent white, 6 percent Hispanic and 3 percent black - hardly reflective of the diverse makeup of New York City.
However, the situation didn't come to a head until 2007, when the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit, claiming that the entrance exam discriminated against racial minorities.
In 2009, a federal judge in Brooklyn agreed with that take, ruling that whites scored consistently higher on the tests than minorities. He ruled the oversight wasn't intentional, but rather the result of a test structure that was inherently more favorable to whites. Test scores were based on reading and comprehension skills, rather than actual firefighting skills. What's more, there was a culture of nepotism within the department. Because the department had been made up largely of white firefighters to begin with, their family and friends were consistently recommended and supported throughout the application process, further perpetuating the lack of diversity.
It was ordered that a new exam would have to be developed, with the help of a third-party, equal opportunity consultant.
Now, the courts are taking this message a step further. The city is going to have to shell out almost $130 million in back wages to minority applicants who weren't hired after taking the department's entrance exam. That payout is going to be split up among some 2,200 applicants who were turned down between 1999 and 2002. The applicants' salary between when they applied and now is going to be factored into the settlement. So someone who made less is going to get more.
Plus, the department needs to hire nearly 300 black and Latino applicants.
A spokesman for the Vulcan Society, which is a fraternity of black firefighters, said that the decision marked a great victory for both the department - which will benefit from the diversity - and those who had previously been excluded - who will benefit from the renewed opportunity.
At this point, nearly 62,000 individuals have registered to take the new exam this week. That is three times the amount of any year of previous applicants.
While the city has defended its hiring practices, saying that the number of minorities has tripled in the last decade, clearly, it hasn't been enough.
This case just goes to show that discrimination in the workplace is costly - not only in terms of possible financial penalties, but in terms of the human toll as well.
The Law Offices of Ira S. Newman provides employment law counsel in New York City, Long Island, Great Neck and throughout the area. Call 516-487-7375 or contact us through the website.