Firefighters Sue to Halt New Hires in Minnesota

The St. Paul firefighters union has sued to stop the city from hiring new firefighters in the latest clash over the impact that candidate testing and ranking practices have on the number of women and minorities on the force.

St. Paul Fire Chief Douglas Holton said Monday that delaying the hiring of 27 new firefighters could drop staffing to dangerously low levels, but the union's president said the suit is meant to ensure the city is hiring the best-qualified candidates.

The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21 filed suit Thursday in Ramsey County District Court, alleging that the city's hiring practices for firefighter candidates violate a 1994 agreement between St. Paul, the union and the Minnesota Human Rights Department.

In the late 1980s, the state Human Rights Department sued the city, alleging that its physical exam for firefighters discriminated against women. A group of minority candidates and Local 21 opposed altering the physical test to increase the number of female firefighters but reached an agreement with the city in 1994.

The parties hired a consultant and agreed the city could "reach down" and hire candidates ranking in the top 45 percent of test-takers to increase the number of women hires and ensure that minority numbers also did not drop.

Union leaders now say the test administered this year violates the 1994 agreement and claim the city is manipulating the consultant's recommendations and is reaching below the 45 percent mark. Union President Patrick Flanagan said he and others fear that qualified candidates with high test scores are being passed over. The union wants the city to rank every candidate rather than use the city's practice of creating groups who score similarly.

"Everyone in the department has a friend, relative or acquaintance who has taken that test. A lot of people have been passed over," Flanagan said. "We know people have scored very well and have not had an interview."

Holton said the lawsuit is without merit. The department can't simply rely on test scores but must also weigh other factors, including emergency medical training, criminal background checks and psychological exams, he said.

"It's going to be a huge problem if we can't hire those firefighter positions," Holton said. "It's definitely putting the citizens of St. Paul in a dangerous situation. It may force me to temporarily shut down some fire companies."

Of the 84 firefighter candidates now being considered after qualifying on the test, 40 are minorities and one is a woman, according to the city. The candidates face further employment screening. The city has 404 firefighter positions.

Shannon Prather can be reached at 651-228-5452.

Distributed by the Associated Press