Fire Protection Inspectors Sue City, Cite Pay Gap With Buildings Staff

The Chief | by Bob Hennelly | May 22, 2020

City Fire Prevention Inspectors May 1 filed a Federal lawsuit alleging they have been the victims of racebased pay discrimination, with city Building Inspectors making nearly $17,000 more at top salary despite having lesser enforcement authority.

The class-action lawsuit noted that while 70 percent of the FPIs are people of color, the inspectors employed by the Department of Buildings are 50 percent white.

Big Gaps at Both Ends

By the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2019, according to the lawsuit, FPIs began at a salary of $46,607 and could reach a maximum of $81,624, while Building Inspectors’ were paid $61,800 to start and could make $98,347 per year in the top title.

“All the evidence points toward the difference in the racial composition of the two groups of employees being the reason that FPIs are paid so much less than building inspectors,” said Michael Lieder, the lead attorney in the case. “The FDNY has a history of treating Fire Protection Inspectors as second-class employees. We are unable to identify any valid business reasons for the pay gap compared to building inspectors.”

The 400 Fire Prevention Inspectors are represented by District Council 37 Local 2507, which also represents Emergency Medical Technicians in the Fire Department. ‘Racial Hostility’ at Work?

Earlier this spring, FPIs playing a key role in enforcing the coronavirus social- distancing regulations told this newspaper they had not been issued the personal protective equipment masks their union believed they should have gotten.

“Racial hostility explains not only the pay discrimination but also FDNY’s unwillingness to provide FPIs the same types of protections and recognition that it gives to its other employees who interact with the public every day,” attorney Lieder said in a statement after the court filing.

“The health and safety of all FDNY employees is a top priority for the agency,” said Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the city Law Department. “The FDNY has provided all the appropriate safety gear to fire inspectors pursuant to CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and Health Department guidelines so that they can perform their work during the pandemic.”

He continued, “That equipment includes surgical masks which were provided before they were mandated for all city employees. The FDNY has made great strides in diversifying its workforce and takes seriously any claim of discrimination.”

Biggest Gap in Nation

The complaint cites data from the U.S. Department of Labor that tracks FPI and Building Inspector compensation across the nation’s largest cities that shows the city has the largest pay disparity between the two titles.

Deputy Chief Fire Prevention Inspector Daryl Chalmers, 60, a plaintiff in the case, said in a phone interview that FPIs have the authority to issue criminal summonses, while Building Inspectors are limited to civil citations.

“We are peace officers who swear the same oath as Firefighters,” he said. FPIs are also responsible for follow-up on-site investigations where there has been a fire. “Firefighters fight the fire and put it out, pull out the hoses and go on to the next job,” Mr. Chalmers said. “We follow up to make sure they won’t have to respond again, but if they do, it will be safe.”

Mr. Chalmers, who is African- American, became an FPI in 1991 after several years as a Housing Preservation and Development Inspector.

“Mayor Dinkins laid off people off at HPD and he sent a lot of Firefighters out of Fire Prevention and back to the firehouses,” Mr. Chalmers recalled during a phone interview. “Then the FDNY approached the HPD people that had been laid off and a lot of people of color applied.”

Unfulfilled Prophecy

He continued, “At the time Thomas Van Essen, who was president of the UFA, said the city would burn down because the Firefighters had been forced out of the Fire Prevention and back to the firehouses, but 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 has suffered fewer than 100 fire deaths.

FPIs are also responsible for scaling and inspecting the city’s water towers atop residential buildings, building stock, industrial sites, tunnels, bridges, regional gas pipelines, and other critical infrastructure. They also supervise pyrotechnical displays like the Macy’s Annual Fourth of July Fireworks.

Deputy Chief Fire Inspector Mike Reardon, 64, is white and became an FPI in 1983 after serving as a volunteer firefighter in Farmingdale, L.I. He is an executive-board member of Local 2507.

He said the most-dangerous assignments for FPIs tend to be the irregular industrial sites they are assigned to investigate before Firefighters arrive on the scene.

A Ticking Junkyard

“We have had our task force come across a junkyard in Queens where they were storing gasoline and cleaning fluids right next to propane, acetylene and propane tanks, all stacked up on top of one another like a big bomb,” Mr. Reardon said. “Next to that they found open cans, 55-gallon drums of gasoline, which they had [siphoned] out of gas tanks.”

According to Dr. Joseph Wilson, a labor historian who is advising Local 2507 on the case, the legal team relied on the expertise of Supervising Fire Protection Inspector Edward Mungin, 56, who recently died from COVID-19.

“Ed was just brilliant and was originally a Building Inspector with the Department of Buildings,” Mr. Wilson said, adding that he was “a chief trainer and wrote their curriculum and had an encyclopedia- like grasp of both the Building Inspector and Fire Inspector titles.”

The court papers 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 making significant reforms in recruiting and required ongoing monitoring by a Federal Judge.

Both unions for EMS workers, Local 2507 and DC 37 Local 3621, which represents officers, have a pending racial discrimination case against the city.