AUSTIN (KXAN) — A six-month hiring freeze at Austin’s Fire Department shows few signs of thawing despite a new federally-motivated cadet hiring proposal headed to full city council for review later this month.
That proposed four to eight-year long consent decree, first reported by KXAN on Monday and posted on the City’s council draft agenda web link would end the hiring freeze.
It offers a number of qualified minority Fire Department candidates in the 2012 hiring process, a remedial test and back pay capped at $780,000 total.
The proposal also includes holding 30 positions for African-American and Hispanic candidates at future fire training academies.
City fire officials reiterate while the freeze has allowed the vacancy rate to creep up to 56, with four retirements planned in March there are enough full time firefighters and enough overtime dollars available if needed to maintain minimum staffing levels at all Austin fire stations into the foreseeable future.
Those minimum levels (240 firefighters) are required by city ordinance and must be in place 24/7, a city spokesperson told KXAN.
The last class to graduate the academy wrapped up courses in July 2013. Since then no new cadets have come on board the Department which boasts a strength of 1129 full time staff.
The Austin Firefighters Association is now calling for a ‘time-out’ so its team can verify the claims Justice Department lawyers first made last fall the city’s fire department cadet hiring process discriminates against African-American and Hispanic minority candidates.
For the first time, Association President Bob Nicks agreed, the $780,000 back pay cap in the new DOJ proposal is ‘reasonable’ given the alleged damages sustained to the 2012 candidates. He referred to a two and a half hour cadet test that was run in two hours, possibly by accident.
Nicks said The DOJ ruling included an examination of the 2012 situation then went on to find discrepancies in the 2013 test process which had been modified.
“We’ve had a week to work on the (2013) information, the city’s had nine months, we need time, AFA President Bob Nicks told KXAN, adding the DOJ only recently shared its data and methods with the union.
Last April a complaint was filed to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In mid September, a federal panel returned with a ruling that essentially forced the Austin Fire Department to put its hiring process on hold while the city’s lawyers worked on the compromise deal for council to consider and sign off on.
“If it doesn’t get off the agenda, it makes the council a bit player in the whole process really,” Nicks said.
City legal staff won’t comment publicly on the union’s position.
Nicks is concerned rushing the settlement process risks anchoring the council to a position he called ‘untenable’ for the Association and warned of taking the concerns to federal court.
“Then we’d be looking at three to five years of no hires,” he said adding millions more taxpayer dollars could be at risk. But Nicks holds it comes down to the quality of firefighter responding to your next emergency; not the color of their skin.
“(The public) should be concerned about this for the same reasons firefighters are concerned,” he said. “It matters who you put in those (fire trucks) seats. It matters who goes to get your wife or daughter out of that (wrecked) car. It matters who goes into that house to look for you if it’s on fire.
Council is set to consider the DOJ settlement item at its Feb. 27 meeting.