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Vanguards of Cleveland hopeful city will change after EEOC finds 'systemic' discrimination during application process

"We're not pumping our chest. The work is just beginning."
Posted at 4:35 PM, Nov 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-20 18:18:07-05

CLEVELAND — After the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a rare ruling finding probable cause of discrimination in the Cleveland Division of Fire’s hiring practices, the Vanguards of Cleveland, an association for black and Hispanic firefighters, is cautiously optimistic the City of Cleveland will make necessary changes. Vanguard’s president, Tyree Thompson, said his organization will not be taking any victory laps and, instead, will be focusing on the work that needs to be done.

Following a four year investigation, the EEOC found the Cleveland Fire Department discriminated against black, Hispanic and female firefighter applicants from 2010 through 2014, violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC found the city fire department enacted discriminatory hiring examinations and procedures by using steps and metrics that were not job-related and consistent with business necessity. The three-page ruling issued on Friday also found that a majority of Cleveland’s firehouses do not have female restrooms, locker rooms or shower room facilities, which is also a violation of Title VII.

The City denied the allegations during the investigation and subsequently disagreed with the ruling.

Thompson and vice president Myran Jackson said the commission’s ruling provided a sense of relief and resolve.

“The firefighters that are in those firehouses are the best. It’s not an indictment on them. It’s a systemic issue that needs to be addressed,” Thompson said. “At least somebody outside of the department and outside the city heard us and said, ‘hey this needs to be corrected and you need to get your act together.’ Hopefully that happens.”

According to the EEOC’s ruling, the commission found the city used written tests and physical ability tests during the hiring process. Bonus points were awarded for residency, military service, and, in 2010, the successful participation in the Martin Luther King program, which enabled high school students to obtain their firefighter certificates. The Vanguards took issue with how, when, where and for how long the applicant testing was administered, Jackson said. The application window was very narrow and were often announced without warning. This left potential applicants without a contact at the Civil Service Commission to be slow to react to the application windows. There was also no application or testing prep offered, which left potential applicants without friends or family in the fire service to be not as prepared for the exams, officials said.

Thompson’s predecessor, former president Rudy Buffington, first raised these issues with city officials years ago. However, those concerns went unheeded, prompting the Vanguards to file a complaint with the EEOC.

“We had to go to the government to get to the point where we are now,” Jackson said. “We want to have a fair and equal opportunity for the minorities of the city of Cleveland and all of the residents of the city of Cleveland.”

The Vanguards contend the discrimination started following the sunset of the so-called Headen Decree, a formal settlement the city reached after being sued in the late 1970s for discriminatory hiring practices at the Division of Fire. The decree required the city to provide a fair hiring testing procedure as well has hire more minority applicants. Under the decree, the ratio of minority hires had to be roughly equal to the percentage of minority population in Cleveland.

The decree expired after a legal challenge in 2009.

Shortly thereafter, Thompson said the fire department’s hiring practices resumed to ‘business as usual.’

“I was hired through the consent decree. I was basically what you would call an affirmative action hire, which sometimes people think someone who was hired as an affirmative action hire is a less than,” Thompson, a captain at the fire department, said. “I have a bachelor’s degree. As you deviate from normal practice, that becomes normal… I think we deviated so it’s normal to not think that females, minorities and other people are maybe capable or want this job which is totally not true.”

The discriminatory practices were also apparent during the physical examination, the Vanguard’s attorney, Jared Klebanow, said. Instead of using a nationally-recognized testing method called CPAT, the city fire department was using its own physical fitness test. Female applicants would routinely be given men-sized equipment that was often multiple sizes too big during the physical fitness testing.

“How can the City of Cleveland expect a woman to move forward and be hired as an applicant when they are starting, for all intents and purposes, three sizes behind the men,” Klebanow said.

After the Headen Decree expired, Jackson said the Vanguards were then eventually cut out of the hiring process. Under the decree, the organization would serve as something that would resemble an agent. The organization would identify and actively recruit firefighter candidates, providing them with information as to when applications are being accepted, what information is required by the Civil Service Commission, as well as prep classes for the firefighters exam.

“Test prep is normally at least eight weeks out,” Jackson said. “We wouldn’t know those times. When you’re dealing with a population that you don’t have a connection with, you can’t just announce the test tomorrow.”

Although it remains unclear what changes the city will make to the fire department’s hiring practices and when those changes may take effect, Thompson said the Vanguards will not be gloating about the rare finding by the EEOC. Instead, the organization will be focusing on making the fire department a more diverse and equitable place to work for future generations.

“I’ve got 23 years [of service]. We can do 25 years and I can retire if I really wanted to in two years. I could ride off into the sunset and say, ‘I got what I wanted,’” Thompson said. “That’s not how I want to leave this. That’s not the legacy I will leave. That’s not the legacy I want to leave. We’re not pumping our chest out that we did something. The work is just beginning. The work starts now. The work is not over. We have to fix this problem.

In a statement, a spokesperson said the city disagrees with the EEOC’s ruling.

“The City disagrees with the findings contained in the determination letter received from the EEOC that the City has discriminated against Black, Hispanic, and female firefighters and individuals applying for employment with the City’s Division of Fire,” the statement said. “The City is presently reviewing these matters and anticipates having further dialogue with the EEOC in the near future.”

After the investigation, the EEOC determined the fire department can voluntarily fix the discriminatory practices. If the department fails to resolve the issues, the EEOC said it will reserve the right to take the Cleveland Fire Department to court to enforce a resolution. Klebanow said further federal litigation and, if necessary, a federal consent decree may be necessary of the city does not voluntarily take affirmative steps to resolve the discriminatory practices.

“You would think the City of Cleveland would want a population of firefighters that represents the population of people they serve. You would think the City of Cleveland would want African American, Latino and female firefighters to excel, be promoted and move up the ranks. Instead, it appears they are doing the exact opposite,” Klebanow said. “What we hope comes out of this process and what the Vanguards hope comes out of this process is an equal playing field.”