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Latino Firefighters Bullied Into Taking Race-Based Promotions, They Say

 Latino firefighters say they were forced to take race-based promotions or face never being promoted at all as part of a policy the fire department says aims to boost diversity in management positions.
Latino firefighters say they were forced to take race-based promotions or face never being promoted at all as part of a policy the fire department says aims to boost diversity in management positions.
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SOUTH LOOP — They are the reluctant lieutenants-to-be of the Chicago Fire Department.

A group of Latino firefighters say their impending promotion to the rank of lieutenant — and the $18,000 pay hike that comes with it — is bittersweet because it was expedited based on their race.

And that's not the way they wanted to become firehouse shift bosses.

The Latino firefighters instead wanted to wait their turn. They've already waited six years since taking the lieutenant's test and were prepared to wait a bit longer. But department brass bullied them into accepting the promotion ahead of some of their firehouse brothers who scored higher on the test, they told DNAinfo Chicago.

“This is about how I feel about myself. I feel like it’s wrong to jump other guys on the list when it’s not my turn to be there,” said one of the Latino firefighters who reluctantly accepted the promotion ahead of dozens of his firefighting brothers.

“I felt threatened because [the Fire Department] said they weren’t going to call after this. And that’s solely based on race. I’m being treated differently than everyone else because of my race.”

The Latino firefighters had each waived race-based promotions twice as a matter of personal pride and a surefire way to avoid serving under the stigma that they didn’t deserve the promotion on their own merit.

But when they got the third promotion offer, Cmdr. Monica Porter made it clear that if they turned it down again there wouldn’t be a next time, the firefighters, who all asked to remain anonymous, told DNAinfo.com.

So far, no firefighters in line to become lieutenant have been removed from the promotion list for refusing the job a third time.

All of the Latino firefighters facing removal from the promotion list who spoke to DNAinfo Chicago reluctantly accepted the affirmative-action promotion and reported to the fire academy this week out of fear that not doing so might hurt their career and pocketbook. Veteran firefighters who get promoted to lieutenant initially receive about an $18,000-a-year salary increase.

“I don’t want to be a guinea pig. … As it stands now, I’m going forward. But if the policy changed tomorrow and I had a chance to withdraw and go back to being a fireman and wait my turn, that’s what I would do,” one of the Latino firefighters told DNAinfo Chicago.

Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local 2 business agent Jim Tracy said the city’s policy to “threaten minorities” with being removed from promotion lists goes against common sense in a department struggling to increase diversity in its leadership ranks.

“These guys are going to get called for promotions anyway. They want to be called in rank order. The city’s getting the diversity it wants. They’re just not getting it immediately,” Tracy said.

“To say … 'You’ll be taken off the list' makes no sense. Why would you get rid of any minorities in line for promotion?”

Last month, the union filed a grievance claiming “'minorities’ are being harassed and intimidated by the personnel department officers and exempt rank personnel" by being ordered to sign papers acknowledging they refused affirmative-action promotions. They also said they've been told after three refusals they will be removed from the promotion list.

The formal complaint — which asked the department to “inform all members who signed refusal papers (not in rank order) they do not count against them” — was denied, and the matter is headed to arbitration.

Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said the Latino firefighters shouldn’t feel any stigma about taking a so-called “out-of-rank” promotion because doing so is “good for the department.”

In an effort to increase the ranks of minorities in leadership roles, the department groups promotion test scores in “bands,” a collection of eligible applicants who scored within about 4 percentage points of each other on promotion exams.

When making promotions, the Fire Department selects eligible candidates who all scored about the same on the test — taking into consideration an employee's race to comply with federal consent decrees aimed at bolstering minority hiring and promotion to leadership positions.

The so-called band test score ranking system was approved by the U.S. Justice Department, which oversees the Fire Department’s compliance with federal consent decrees.

“I know what [the firefighters] are saying and understand their position. But this is part of the tools we’re allowed to use approved the justice department to adjust the mix to create some good diversity in management,” Langford said.

“Maybe some people are not comfortable with moving up a little bit, but that’s one of the tools we have to help the department better reflect the makeup of the city, and the department is going to continue to use that tool,” said Langford.

Currently, about 70 percent of the Fire Department’s 571 lieutenants are white. In all, there are 99 black, 64 Hispanic and three Asian lieutenants in the department.

The overall racial makeup of Chicago is 33 percent black, 32 percent white, 29 percent Latino and 6 percent Asian.

Langford said that if a higher percentage of white employees get promoted because minority candidates decline promotions, that creates an “adverse impact” on the city’s effort to increase departmentwide diversity.

Firefighters are allowed to decline promotions twice before facing being removed from the list. Until about eight months ago, however, a firefighter’s decision to postpone a promotion was good for six months.

The decision to eliminate the six-month grace period stems from the Fire Department’s desire to no longer allow some employees to avoid assignments that they consider undesirable.

That policy change was put in place as a way to persuade paramedics to accept promotions to the rank of “paramedic in charge” more quickly, but it applies “across the board” to all promotion lists, Langford said.

“This department policy balances the need to give promotional candidates some leeway to decide when they are ready to accept a new role with the need for CFD to manage its staffing,” the Fire Department spokesman said.

“If the member does not like the assignment he or she is given, they could keep saying, ‘no,’ until they got what they liked. That is not the way the department operates. All assignments are for the good of the department and its mission.”

Engine 116 Fire Capt. Mauricio Rodriguez, who turned down affirmative-action promotion offers to lieutenant and captain for years — seven or eight times by his count — said applying the “three-and-out rule” to race-based promotions discriminates against minority Fire Department employees.

“To single people out on the basis of race, whether it's for positive or for negative reasons, is discriminatory,” Rodriguez said.

“And it’s the most ridiculous thing ever for the department to say we want to promote minorities under the federal decree, but if that minority doesn’t want to take it when we say we’re going to take them off the list. It’s a-- backwards.”

While fighting for his right to get promoted in rank order over his career, Rodriguez received a letter from former Fire Commissioner Ray Orozco that informed him he would not be booted from a promotion list and that waiver forms he signed were for “internal tracking purposes only.”

“Once I got that letter, no one ever bothered me again,” he said.

“My personal belief is that we all work really hard to get in the position to get promoted. … I didn’t want to think they gave it to me because I’m Mexican. I didn’t want to play into a stereotype that I’m not smart enough to do it on my own. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done on my own. These guys should have the same opportunity.”

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