By Wendell Hutson, Special to the NNPA from the Chicago Crusader –
Had Arthur Lewis Jr. been hired after taking a 1995 entrance exam to be a Chicago firefighter he could have been promoted three times by now. “I could have been a battalion chief. Who knows what my rank would be had I been given a fair chance to compete for what I consider is the greatest job in the world,” Lewis told the Crusader.
Gregory Boggs, a Black Chicago fireman who passed the 1995 exam, agreed. “That is an opportunity he will never get now. Those types of opportunities our forever lost at this late stage,” said Boggs, who is president of the African American Firefighters & Paramedics League of Chicago. “Promotions have come and gone and I doubt if they will come around again before these applicants retire.” There is a mandatory retirement age of 63 for firefighters and the maximum age to begin as a firefighter is 37, added Boggs, who estimates that most of the 6,000 Black applicants who took the 1995 exam are now over age 37.
Last week, the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Black applicants had not waited too long before filing a lawsuit against the city for discrimination. The discrimination suit was a result of how the city handled a 1995 firefighter’s entrance exam. In addition, the court ordered the city to hire 111 Black applicants who passed the 1995 exam, which will cost the city an estimated $30 million, according to Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department. Hoyle added that there was a good reason why the city never challenged the plaintiffs claim that they were discriminated against when a cutoff score was used to determine applicants.
“During the lengthy procedural history of this case, which dates back to the mid-1990s, the city raised a number of complex legal issues,” explained Hoyle. “We appealed the statute of limitations issue because we felt that it had larger implications for the city of Chicago (and other municipalities across the country) because we deal with employment disputes on a regular basis.” And while Lewis, 41, is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit, Lewis v. city of Chicago, more than 5,000 other Blacks also are potential plaintiffs, which Jousha Karsh, lead attorney for the plaintiffs; estimate could cost the city upwards of $100 million to settle.
“We are talking about applicants who were never considered for hiring,” he said. “And the 111 applicants the city must hire will more than likely be stigmatized by other firefighters, so we expect it to be ugly.” Many Black applicants the Crusader contacted who took the 1995 exam declined comment for fear that it might hurt their hiring chances. The 111 Black applicants will be determined using a lottery system, according to Hoyle.
And, once applicants are chosen they must still pass a criminal background check, medical screening, and successfully complete six months of training at the CFD academy. Felony convictions would not exclude applicants either, said Larry Langford, spokesman for the CFD. But for Lewis, a former college recruiter and now unemployed, money is not the key factor here. “My father is a retired Chicago fireman and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I am still interested in being a fireman and I hope this lawsuit finally gives me that opportunity,” he said. “Being a firefighter is a brotherhood unlike anything else. I grew up watching my dad work closely with other Black firemen and they were like family. They bonded all the time and remain close friends to this day.” He added that the outcome for the 60,000 Black applicants who took and passed the 1995 exam was a “grave injustice.” Competing for a spot within the predominately white CFD is not easy, said Ezra McCann, who retired from the CFD in 2006 as a captain.
“I worked for the Chicago Fire Department for 30 years and it was a ‘good old boys’ network then and it still remains today,” McCann said. “Had more Blacks been hired many Black families would be way ahead of the game when it comes to poverty. Racism still breeds within the CFD and Blacks should not be the only one suffering, he added. “White folks in this town are gainfully employed as city, state and Cook County employees. We are in a recession but white folks are not suffering as much as Blacks and they should,” added McCann.
The CFD is aware that its current employee roster does not reflect the Chicago population and has made a concerted effort to change that, said Langford. In 2010, the CFD employed 5,120 and 68.5 percent were white, 17.5 percent Black, and 12.3 percent Hispanic. At Crusader press time, the current ethnic statistics for the CFD were unavailable but Langford said they probably were not much different from last year.
The last entrance exam for the CFD was given in 2006 but results were unavailable at Crusader press time. But to avoid the same confusion, the 1995 exam created Hoyle said the city now uses a pass or fail grade method for applicants rather than a specific score it previously used. McCann said Black applicants who took the 1995 exam would join the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Saturday morning at the civil rights organization’s weekly, public forum at 930 E. 50th St. on the South Side.
He added that Blacks who took the 1995 exam and scored at least a 65 are encouraged to contact the African American Firefighters & Paramedics League of Chicago or the city’s Law Department to see if they are eligible to be included in the suit.
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