UPDATED 08/17/11 6:31 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — A bitter, 16-year-old battle about African-Americans who were passed over by the Chicago Fire Department was coming to an end on Wednesday.
Under a federal court order entered on Wednesday, the city must hire 111 African-Americans who passed a 1995 firefighters entrance exam.
The city must also pay $30 million in damages to some 6,000 black candidates who took and passed the test, but were not hired.
The order ends a federal lawsuit over the entrance exam, which a federal judge had ruled discriminated against black candidates.
But as CBS 2’s Dana Kozlov reports, another fight involving would-be firefighters could be brewing in Chicago. The ruling might be a victory for those passed-over candidates, but some future firefighters have a new concern: possible retaliation from the old guard.
A judge has ruled the 1995 hiring process unfairly eliminated most black candidates. Now, 111 of those candidates will get a second chance to join the Fire Department, if they can pass the physical abilities test, background check, drug test and medical exam.
“They’re excited. They’ve waited a long time. It’s been 15 years and they’ve all did what they were supposed to do in the beginning, they passed the test,” said Greg Boggs, president of the African-American Firefighters and Paramedics League of Chicago. “And so now they’re going to be given the opportunity that they should have been given 15 years ago.”
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Steve Miller reports
Soon, 111 African-American men and women will find out if they’ve won the Chicago firefighter lottery. That’s how many firefighting jobs the city must fill from the pool of 6,000 black applicants who passed the test in 1995, but weren’t hired.
“We’re getting the jobs we lost and we’re getting the full back pay that was lost,” said attorney Joshua Karsh, who represented the black firefighter applicants.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the city is putting a program in place to hire the 111 applicants, but wouldn’t say where the money would come from to pay the $30 million owed to the passed-over applicants.
“That’s a responsibility we’re gonna have as a city to deal with and I acknowledge that,” Emanuel said.
All of those involved in the lawsuit originally passed the firefighter test, but did not score high enough to be chosen for a coveted academy spot. That was part of the lawsuit.
Now that 111 will get the chance to fulfill that dream, one question is, can they handle the physical demands 16 years after passing the written exam?
“The ones who are still looking forward to taking the job, they have kept themselves in shape and they’re ready for it,” Boggs said.
“There should be no questions about their ability to do the job. Nobody’s getting this job who doesn’t pass the physical abilities test and doesn’t graduate from the Chicago Fire Academy,” Karsh said. “They are just like any other brand new firefighter in the Chicago Fire Department. The standards are not being changed.”
But that’s just the first step for the applicants. After that, when they report to work, they face potential hostility within the ranks of veteran firefighters.
Boggs acknowledged that some candidates were worried about the stigma of coming onto the job under the cloud of a court order stemming from a discrimination lawsuit. Some feared facing potential retaliation from current firefighters.
Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said there is a zero-tolerance policy for harassment in the Fire Department and added that Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff has given the assurance that all 111 incoming firefighters will be treated fairly. Langford also said Hoff will make sure all chief officers enforce that policy.
This is not the only discrimination lawsuit the Fire Department is facing. Last month, Samantha Vasich, 27, filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status on behalf of women firefighter candidates, claiming the department’s physical ability test favors men.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Regine Schlesinger reports
Vasich’s attorney said the physical test used by the Chicago Fire Department is not related to actual firefighting, and is discriminatory.
The CFD test is composed mostly of “gym-type exercises,” such as arm lifts, leg lifts and endurance tests, according to a news release on the lawsuit. But in other cities such as New York and Los Angeles, the Candidate Physical Abilities Test consists of situations that simulate actual firefighting, involving wearing gear and a self-contained breathing apparatus, the release said.