The Austin Chronicle

AFD Hiring: Smoke or Fire?

Add the EEOC to the parties weighing in on firefighter hiring

By Jordan Smith, February 28, 2014, News

The unfolding story of allegedly discriminatory hiring practices within the Austin Fire Depart­ment – already the subject of a possible consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice – took another turn Feb. 20, as the Austin Firefighters Association announced that it had been informed by the federal Equal Employ­ment Opportunity Com­mis­sion that the union is now being accused of playing a role in hiring discrimination.

"The [AFA] is surprised and confused by the EEOC's allegation that our union organization is guilty of discrimination based on the results of the 2012 [AFD] cadet hiring process," union President Bob Nicks said in a press release. Though the union declined to release the EEOC's allegation letter, Nicks said the union maintains that it played no part in the alleged discrimination. The AFA "is not the employer who was doing the hiring" – that would be the city – "nor is there anything within the requirements of the labor agreement that could have created the adverse impact," he said.

At issue are the results of the 2012 hiring process, which involved the city's administrative decision to shorten the amount of time potential cadets were given to complete written testing; cutting it from two-and-a-half to two hours may have invalidated the test, and more specifically had an adverse impact on African-American and Hispanic candidates.

The DOJ has been looking into the city's fire-cadet hiring process since last spring, in an effort to determine whether the city has violated federal anti-discrimination law in its hiring practices. AFD is not alone among U.S. fire departments that have struggled with hiring both minority and female cadets. If the city is found to have violated federal law, it may be offered an opportunity to avoid litigation by signing on to a consent decree that would define how hiring would be conducted for a specified number of years.

As we reported Feb. 7 ("Is the City Trying to Bust the Firefighters Union?"), the city appeared poised to do just that, despite the fact that just days before, the union had received confirmation that a retooled hiring practice employed in 2013, using a different test, had in fact produced the most diverse candidate pool the city has yet seen. A Council agenda item that would have approved the yet to be negotiated decree was postponed to today (Thursday, Feb. 27), but at press time, it appears it will be pulled again, to give more time for discussion (and perhaps agreement) among the union, city, DOJ, and EEOC.

Nicks said the union has been "working very hard behind the scenes" to encourage the four groups to get together to mediate the situation in an effort to avoid a decree or litigation. "That's what we've wanted from the beginning," he said.

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