Fire Inspectors’ Pay Bias Suit Proceeds

By BOB HENNELLY Oct 1, 2021 

A race-based pay discrimination lawsuit brought by the union for Fire Prevention Inspectors has survived the city’s motion to dismiss it, but the Federal Judge handling the case ruled that the white employees in the title can’t be covered.

District Council 37’s Local 2507, which also represents Emergency Medical Technicians, is reviewing the Sept. 16 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Analisa Torres.

Cited Pay Anomaly

The union filed the suit in May 2020 alleging that FPIs were victims of race-based bias discrimination because city Building Inspectors made nearly $17,000 more at top salary despite having lesser enforcement authority.

The class-action lawsuit noted that while more than 70 percent of the FPIs were people of color, half the inspectors employed by the Department of Buildings were white.

By 2019, according to the lawsuit, FPIs started at $46,607 and reached a maximum of $81,624,  while Building Inspectors were hired at $61,800 and could rise to $98,347.

The complaint cited data from the U.S. Department of Labor that showed nationally the city had the largest pay gap between the two titles.

In her ruling, Judge Torres rejected the city’s argument that the duties performed by Building Inspectors were not “sufficiently similar.” She noted that the jobs had similar education requirements and were reached by passing written exams, candidates underwent “virtually identical training,” reviewed the same buildings on a shared database and worked “on an equal and collaborative footing” on joint task forces.

Comparison Fits

“As discussed, at this early stage of the litigation, Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that BIs are an appropriate comparator group for FPIs,” wrote Judge Torres. “Moreover, Plaintiffs statistical analysis, based on publicly available data, demonstrated that, between fiscal years 2008 and 2019, on average FPIs were paid lower salaries than BIs at comparable job grades. It further indicates the gap between median FPIs and BI pay has ‘grown steadily’ over the last 12 years.” 

She concluded that “Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that the city’s practice of paying predominantly minority FPIs the minimum salary prescribed by their collective bargaining agreement, while paying predominately white BIs significantly more than the minimum salary established in their CBA, has ‘disproportionately and adversely’ affected minority FPIs in terms of their compensation.”

In a statement, Assistant Corporation Counsel Amanda Croushore downplayed the significance of the ruling.

“The court did not substantiate that there was discrimination by the City,” Ms. Croushore wrote. “The court advanced the case so more detail about the two positions could be presented. There is no discrimination. These are two very different jobs. The qualifications differ, the work performed is different, and the salaries are the result of negotiations by the respective unions. We’ll get into these issues as the case continues.”

‘Very Important’

But the lead attorney for the FPIs, Michael Lieder, said during a Sept. 29 phone interview, “The decision is very important in that it allows us to proceed with the lawsuit. You have a job title that is primarily a racial minority that does essentially the same jobs as another job title in another city agency, the Department of Buildings, where the job title has a lot more white employees that are also paid a good deal more.”

He claimed that the charges were also validated by a City Council analysis released this summer that showed the city has a longstanding system of “occupational segregation” that has resulted in white employees earning on average $27,800 more than black ones and $22,200 more than Latino employees.

The initial lawsuit filing cited the Federal lawsuit brought by the Vulcan Society, the African-American firefighter fraternal organization that alleged the FDNY’s entrance exam was racially biased.

In 2014, the de Blasio administration settled the case for $98 million under a consent decree that committed the city to significant reforms in recruiting and required ongoing monitoring by a Federal Judge.

Greater Responsibility

FPIs, unlike Building Inspectors, are state peace officers and are empowered to issue criminal summonses. They are responsible for conducting follow-up investigations of fire scenes, scaling and inspecting city water towers atop residential buildings, and checking commercial properties, places of public assembly, industrial sites, tunnels, bridges and regional gas pipelines. They also supervise pyrotechnical displays like the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks.

During the pandemic, they were assigned additional duties enforcing the city’s social-distancing regulations and inspecting the temporary structures restaurants built on sidewalks throughout the city to provide outdoor cafes.

Deputy Chief Fire Prevention Inspector Daryl Chalmers, a plaintiff in the case and a member of Local 2507’s executive board, said that even with wage gains from a contract ratified last month “our salaries are still much lower than the Building Inspectors.”

Mr. Chalmers, who is African-American, became an FPI in 1991 after several years as a Housing Inspector. Last year when the lawsuit was filed, he noted that after then-Mayor David Dinkins laid off Housing Inspectors and the Fire Department moved  Firefighters out of its Fire Prevention unit and back to firehouses, the department sought out the laid-off Housing Inspectors “and a lot of people of color applied.”

A False Alarm 

He said that despite the prediction at the time by fire-union President Tom Von Essen that fire deaths would increase dramatically, “the opposite happened. We saw fire deaths drop significantly.”

According to the lawsuit, the city reported 275 fire deaths in 1990, while in each of the last 14 years it suffered fewer than 100 deaths.

Deputy Chief Fire Inspector Mike Reardon, an FPI since 1983 who is an executive-board member of Local 2507, said that white employees like himself had also been victims of the pay discrimination.

“All of us make the same amount of money,” he said.

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