Feds: Minority firefighter applicants were discriminated against

A federal agency has found that minority applicants for the Austin Fire Department’s 2012 cadet academy were discriminated against.

In a letter the city received Monday, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that it had finished its investigation into the department’s hiring practices from 2012 and found that a group of black applicants was discriminated against because of race and a group of Hispanic applicants was discriminated against because of national origin.

Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr said in a memo to department personnel Tuesday that the city has decided it will not hire any additional personnel from the 2012 hiring list as a result of the agency’s determination. To date, 96 firefighters have been hired from it.

The city will not debate the decision, Kerr said in the memo.

A spokeswoman for the department said it’s unclear if and how the federal findings will affect this year’s hiring process. She said Tuesday that the chief would not comment further.

The U.S. Justice Department in April announced it was authorizing the investigation based on information indicating that the Fire Department might discriminate against some minorities. The federal agency sent a letter to the city that month saying the investigation would seek to determine whether the department is engaged in a “pattern or practice of discrimination against Hispanics and African Americans with respect to employment opportunities in sworn positions” in violation of federal law.

The Justice Department did not detail what prompted the federal investigation in the letter.

Austin Deputy City Manager Mike McDonald said in a statement at the time that he was disappointed by the allegation but that the city welcomed an objective review by the agency responsible for enforcing the country’s core employment anti-discrimination laws.

In the letter the city received Monday from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency said it found that approximately 39.5 percent of black candidates passed the cognitive written exam to become a cadet compared with 68 percent of nonblack candidates.

Ultimately, only one black candidate was hired out of approximately 736 black applicants, according to the letter.

In her memo to department personnel Tuesday, Kerr said that 636 black candidates completed applications in 2012, not the 736 stated in the letter, and that only 328 of those candidates actually took the test. Three of those candidates were placed on the hiring list, she said.

“The letter does not say that the city intended to discriminate against any individual or group, but rather that the difference in pass rates between African-Americans and Whites was the unintended effect of a neutral testing process,” according to a statement released by the city.

City Manager Marc Ott and McDonald were not available for comment Tuesday.

This summer, labor contract negotiations broke down between the city and Austin firefighters in part over a dispute about how new cadets should be hired. Fire union and city officials had been negotiating since March, but Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, said the city wanted “total control” over how to hire firefighter cadets while the union wanted the ability to participate in the discussion.

Refusing the union’s request to resume negotiations, Ott said in a July letter to Nicks that the city needs the “unfettered ability” to implement any recommended changes to the hiring process that might result from the federal investigation.

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