Austin settles hiring suit, sets aside slots for minorities

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The Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — The Austin City Council late Thursday approved a proposed settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over alleged discrimination against African-American and Hispanic firefighter job hopefuls.

In September, the federal agency announced it had found evidence that the city’s 2012 and 2013 hiring discriminated against African-American and Hispanic candidates. It did not claim the discrimination was intentional but that it in effect deprived African-Americans and Hispanics, and said it would sue the city if the council did not approve the agreement.

City legal staff advised the council that the federal government might still choose to litigate after the council considered accepting the decree for the 2012 standards but re-negotiating with the agency and the firefighters’ union on the ones it used in 2013.

The federal investigation began in April of last year, after an unsuccessful applicant complained of discrimination to federal authorities.The proposal was opposed by the Austin Firefighters Association, an estimated 300 of whose members arrived at council chambers Thursday to show and voice their objection to a settlement they say was necessitated by the city’s own tepid defense of its hiring practices.

Union president Bob Nicks said concerns about 2012 practices were legitimate, but that strides were made in 2013, leading to more diversity. He accused City Manager Marc Ott and his office of having “colluded” to agree on the decree.

“Let’s put this process behind us,” Nicks said. “Let’s start hiring cadets.”

After an hour of public comments overwhelmingly opposed to approving the deal — culled from an estimated five hours’ worth of speakers who had signed up to speak — the council seemed ready to ask the Justice Department if it would be willing to settle on the city’s 2012 hiring practices and continue negotiations on the revamped 2013 process. Council Member Chris Riley said his motion, presented earlier in the evening, was to “sever out the 2012 issues from the 2013 issues.”

The consent decree — which will be subject to approval in federal court — calls for up to $780,000 to be awarded to unsuccessful Austin Fire Department job applicants for back pay and for future cadet classes at the fire academy to set aside 30 slots for African-American and Hispanic candidates. The Justice Department also would oversee the hiring process for at least four years and up to eight.

The agreement effectively means the Austin Fire Department would be able to resume hiring cadets with some modifications to the process. The department halted hiring in the midst of the investigation after the city spent more than $300,000 on a hiring process it planned to use last year to hire about 75 cadets who would have graduated early this year or this summer.

Nicks had proposed an alternative settlement in which 18 Hispanic and 12 African-American candidates would be hired, the same number in the proposed plan being considered Thursday and the same number who were not hired in 2012. The union has said that the city didn’t give applicants adequate time to finish tests required for successfully passing.

City documents indicate officials there do not think it violated federal law but was inclined to settle to avoid the threatened lawsuit.

Firefighter job prospects are required to fill out a written application, then a written test and finally an oral exam. The Justice Department claimed it found a 2012 disparity in the passing rates among demographic groups in the written test and the disparity in rankings were statistically significant and discriminatory, even after the city had spent $312,000 to amend the process.

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