FDNY faces another discrimination case

NEW YORK (AP) - A lawsuit filed against the Fire Department of New York accuses it of discriminating against black employees and job seekers in its ambulance and civilian support staff operations and comes almost four years after the department agreed to pay $98 million to settle a discrimination lawsuit from black firefighters.

The new lawsuit, filed in federal court in Manhattan, has seven plaintiffs, all current employees. One of those employees works in the ambulance service, and the others are in non-uniform positions such as human resources and computers.

Their lawyer said they are "on a mission to bring about cultural change at the FDNY."

"We want to change the entire DNA so that it becomes a place where people rise up based on merit, it becomes a place where people are paid fairly, it becomes a place of equal opportunity," lead counsel Cyrus Mehri said on Wednesday outside City Hall.

The lawsuit alleges the FDNY, whose members are almost all white, discriminates by hiring fewer black employees overall compared with other city agencies, particularly for higher-paying job categories, and by paying black employees in civilian positions less than white workers in the same positions. It says the FDNY's actions violate federal law and the city's Human Rights Law.

The city's corporation counsel says the allegations are not new and the parties have been in discussion over the issues in the complaint.

The lawsuit is seeking several remedies, including appointing an outside task force or monitor for five years; requiring the FDNY to come up with plans to increase black representation; and adjusting the pay of any black employees who are found to be underpaid.

Plaintiff Stephanie Thomas, who's worked at the fire department for almost 30 years, said all her efforts to move up in that time have been rejected, whether that's after applying for different positions or trying to move from the first level of computer specialist, where she's been since she started, to higher levels. She said she's seen white employees who came into the department after her move up to other levels.

"I've got the education, the ability, they know what I'm capable of, and still nothing," she said.

The FDNY said that in recent years it "has demonstrated a commitment to improved diversity and inclusion unlike at any time in our history, including: a diverse leadership team, including more women and people of color than ever before."

The department has faced criticism for years over minority hiring percentages that were only in the single digits in a force of roughly 11,000 firefighters and fire officers, despite the city having significant minority populations. As part of the settlement, the department's efforts to change that have included a $10 million recruitment campaign in the 18 months before the most recent firefighter exam, which was in the fall of 2017.

That campaign included reaching out to communities of color in neighborhoods around the city, FDNY Deputy Commissioner Frank Gribbon said.

In 2017, 46,305 people applied to take the test, compared with 42,161 in 2012. The number of whites taking the exam fell to less than half the total field, while the number of minorities jumped significantly.

Incoming classes of firefighters are taken from the test result rolls. Those results have not been compiled. Gribbon said that in recent years around 40 percent of firefighter classes have been made up of minorities.