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Civilian FDNY employees file discrimination lawsuit

Stephon Johnson | 12/14/2017, 11:55 a.m.
According to a new lawsuit, discrimination in the FDNY isn’t limited to actual firefighters.
FDNY Flickr

According to a new lawsuit, discrimination in the FDNY isn’t limited to actual firefighters.

In a new class-action lawsuit, filed by seven civilian employees Dec. 1, the New York City Fire Department is accused of racially discriminatory practices against its Black civilian employees. Black firefighters settled a lawsuit three years ago after accusing FDNY officials of discrimination. Civilian FDNY employees filed a complaint about discriminatory practices with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016.

The lawsuit claims that FDNY leadership hasn’t implemented human resources practices that could reduce or stop discrimination; an inside group, good old boy network has kept non-whites out of decision-making positions; white employees are promoted more and compensated more than nonwhite employees; and City Hall has failed to exercise control over the FDNY’s practices.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, states that the FDNY’s practices violate the U.S. Civil Rights Act and New York City’s own Human Rights Law.

Plaintiff Stephanie Thomas, an African-American computer specialist, has worked for the FDNY for almost 30 years. She told reporters during a news conference at City Hall that she hasn’t received any discretionary raises (only minimal) and has been denied a promotion her entire time there.

Thomas explained, “I work very hard and have been commended for the work I do, but I have been literally stuck—for 30 years—at the same level and pay grade as recently hired computer specialists. I have received only the small raises negotiated by my union, and never a discretionary raise like my white [co-workers].”

The other six employees in the lawsuit include Annette Richardson, Deborah Bowman, Lia Horsley, Debra Poe, Dino Riojas and Arlene Simmons.

“The city is aware of this problem and has chosen to sit on its hands and do nothing,” said Sara Wyn Kane, the plaintiff’s attorney. “As stated in the lawsuit, the city’s own workforce profile data for 2014 show that 41 percent of its hires were white and 27 percent were African-American. But at FDNY, 59 percent were white and only 14 percent were African-American. In other words, FDNY hired African-Americans at only about half of the rate at which other city agencies did.”

Retired judge and well-known civil rights attorney U.W. Clemon is also part of the plaintiffs’ legal team and said that the lawsuit against the FDNY shows him that the fight is not over.

“The fight that is being waged here by these brave African-Americans is reminiscent of the earlier civil rights era, and represents a new battleground,” stated Clemon. “It’s a shame that discrimination is still rife in the Fire Department of the largest American city. I want to commend the bravery of the FDNY 7 for filing this lawsuit, knowing that they will still have to go to work every day and face the perpetrators of these discriminatory practices.”

Discrimination accusations with the FDNY aren’t new. In the 1970s the Vulcan Society (which represents Black firefighters) and the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the FDNY over its entry level exams, which were deemed to be discriminatory against Black and Latino applicants. Despite Federal Judge Edward Weinfeld’s order to hire one minority applicant for every three white candidates, the FDNY remained 93 percent white. In 2007, the Vulcan Society and the Department of Justice filed a class action suit against the FDNY over its “virtual exclusion” of nonwhite firefighters. Judge Nicholas Garaufis granted the plaintiffs $100 million in back pay and benefits to compensate for FDNY applicants who were improperly barred from entry.

An elected official recently commented that there shouldn’t be racism within an agency whose main job is to protect New Yorkers.

“There is no place for bigotry or hatred in the City of New York, especially when it comes to those sworn to protect New Yorkers,” said Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson in a statement. “It is disappointing and disturbing that a man who was forced out of his job as a NYC EMT for racist, sexist and anti-Semitic tweets could be sworn in as firefighter just four years later.”

The plaintiffs want the court to appoint an outside monitor or task force going forward for five years or more; require FDNY to create plans to increase representation of African-Americans in civilian positions in which they’re represented and in EMS positions above lieutenant (with the court’s approval); appoint an outside monitor to audit compensation of civilian employees; and require FDNY to view and modify its human resources practices.