Austin demands state pension changes to diversify CFD ranks
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The City Council’s most powerful black alderman is demanding changes in state pension laws to remove a major impediment to diversifying the Chicago Fire Department’s overwhelmingly white brass.
Fourteen of the Fire Department’s 61 exempt-rank jobs — 23 percent — are vacant. The 47 bosses who remain are 78.7 percent white, 12.7 percent black and 8.5 percent Hispanic.
Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) thinks she knows at least part of the reason why: State pension laws that penalize members of the Fire Department’s exempt ranks.
“When a policemen is promoted up, his pay don’t change when he retires out. Why would there be a penalty for the Fire Department? And they’re only imposing this on the Chicago Fire Department. It’s not the whole entire state. That’s my concern,” Austin said Tuesday.
“If they retire at the rank they’re at, that’s money that they lose. I’ve heard as much as $30,000. Those [who] take it know they will be penalized. If they would change the law in Springfield, more African-Americans can be moved up in rank.”
Fire officials must retire at age 63. But members of the exempt ranks must pay for their own health insurance until they hit 65. Fire Department brass also lose pay perks, including vacation time, overtime and supplemental pay.
In addition, the state pension code doesn’t allow exempt fire officers to earn pension benefits based on their current salary. Instead, their pension benefits are based on the lower salary of their most recent union-covered job.
All of that can cost brass members as much as $25,000-a-year.
The high-stakes controversy came to a head in mid-June.
Thirty-two members of the Chicago Fire Department’s exempt ranks returned to their career service ranks, but continued to “act up” in the exempt positions from which they resigned.
That made them eligible for overtime, holiday pay, duty availability, Hazmat and other forms of supplemental and specialty pay afforded to members of the rank-and-file.
The fire officials are seeking pension changes, expanded health insurance benefits and pay raises, but have, so far, been unable to convince Mayor Rahm Emanuel to sweeten the pot for them.
Sources said Emanuel discontinued the longstanding practice of boosting the pay of exempt-rank members in response to union contracts that increased pay for the rank-and-file.
That has paved the way for a topsy-turvy situation: The salary and specialty pay of lower-ranking union members meets and, in some cases, exceeds, their commanders.
As a result, for example, battalion chiefs are reluctant to accept promotion to deputy district chief because it will cost them so much money.
The mayor’s office has argued that the problem can be solved, only with a “brass bill” that would allow exempt fire employees to earn a pension based on the pay for their current jobs.
In 1973, a federal class-action lawsuit accused the Chicago Fire Department of discriminatory hiring and promotional practices. At the time, only 4 percent of Chicago’s 5,000 firefighters were black.
The lawsuit resulted in a four-year freeze on hiring and promotions and a federal consent decree mandating minority hiring. Between 1977 and 1979, the number of black firefighters increased from 150 to roughly 400.
Under Emanuel, Chicago resolved a bitter legal battle the mayor inherited from former Mayor Richard M. Daley, stemming from the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 firefighters entrance exam.
The city agreed to hire 111 bypassed African-American firefighters and borrow the $78.4 million needed to compensate nearly 6,000 African-Americans who never got that chance.
Austin said the Fire Department has come a long way since those racially hostile days and the embarrassments caused by racist slurs on Fire Department radio and the ugly scene captured on videotape at Engine 100 that showed white firefighters drinking beer, using racial slurs and even mooning the camera during a retirement party.
“I’m not gonna say all of that discrimination is gone. But they’ve learned lessons as time has gone on. They needed to be taught differently and it has taken time to teach differently,” Austin said.
“More and more African-Americans have come in with more education … Richard Ford is the first deputy. He’s got degrees up the ying-yang. Here’s an African-American at a high-end rank. But when he retires, he’s got to come back down to battalion chief or whatever his last union rank is. That’s where the problem lies.”