New labor contract addresses issues of racial bias within Kansas City Fire Department

In the last 20 years, Kansas City has paid $2.75 million in judgments, attorney's fees, court costs and litigation expenses in lawsuits from employees who accused the department of harassment, discrimination and retaliation


Mike Hendricks
The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY — Six months after promising to address systemic racism within the Kansas City Fire Department, city officials have reached a labor agreement with the firefighters' union that addresses some of the concerns raised in a Kansas City Star investigation.

The department's proposed contract with Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters would, for example, end a practice that often excluded Black firefighters from choice assignments at busy fire stations when white firefighters short-circuited the seniority system, union and city officials say.

In the last 20 years, Kansas City has paid $2.75 million in judgments, attorney's fees, court costs and litigation expenses in lawsuits from employees who accused the department of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
In the last 20 years, Kansas City has paid $2.75 million in judgments, attorney's fees, court costs and litigation expenses in lawsuits from employees who accused the department of harassment, discrimination and retaliation. (Photo/KCFD)

Chief Donna Lake initiated a temporary ban on that practice of trading assignments without regard to seniority after The Star's series described how many largely minority neighborhoods were served by nearly all-white fire crews. The new contract would make that change permanent.

Other key elements of the contract include creating the new position of diversity and recruitment officer, whose main job would be to make the department better resemble the community it serves. In a city where nearly 30 percent of the population is Black, only 14 percent of its firefighters are. Blacks represent an even lower percentage at the higher ranks, in part due to a promotional system that in multiple court cases has been accused of being racially biased.

In the last 20 years, Kansas City has paid $2.75 million in judgments, attorney's fees, court costs and litigation expenses in lawsuits from employees who accused the department of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.

Separate from the agreement, the Fire Department is looking for a consultant to design and administer the promotional examinations that determine which firefighters will become crew captains.

The contract also calls for a firefighter paramedic apprentice project aimed at helping more minorities get that certification. The city will also pay for annual training in "diversity, inclusion and sexual harassment," according to Local 42. Previously it was done sporadically.

More than 95 percent of Local 42 members within the department approved the contract last week, the union said, nearly all of them learning about the changes for the first time at meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. Local 42 represents all firefighters with the rank of captain or below. Another union represents battalion and division chiefs.

The city council must approve the contract for it to take effect, but most members won't be fully briefed until this week. Normally contracts are rubber-stamped, but this one won't be when it's presented at a committee meeting on Wednesday, councilwoman Melissa Robinson said.

"We're going to be keenly looking at what these changes are," she told The Star.

Financial issues are usually the council's main concern when the contract comes up for renewal every five years. But in light of the issues raised by The Star's three-part series, Robinson said, "Now we're talking about, really, what is going to be the quality of the work environment for all of the firefighters and looking at making sure there are protections in place that people have a positive work experience, which is an important component of any contract negotiation."

Contract important

Gwendolyn Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, hadn't seen the proposed contract as of late last week, but she said the agreement will be key in eliminating discriminatory practices that have been allowed to persist for many years.

"The union has been complicit or culpable in the systemic racism that's inside the KCFD," she said. "The bargaining agreement is an essential element to determine (whether) that system is going to be addressed..."

In a prepared statement, the union said it recognized its responsibility to do the right thing going forward "and is focused on not diverting the attention necessary to ensure that the systemic racism and mistakes of our past are not forgotten and not repeated."

Local 42 said that in recent years it has "made great strides in the right direction in regard to making our workplace fair, equitable, and safe for all people who hold bargaining unit position."

The statement, signed by business agent and union human relations committee chairman Konsta Myrick, went on to say that Local 42 is committed to diversity and inclusion and will not tolerate discrimination or harassment of anyone "based on their skin color, sex, gender, race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, age , religious belief, etc."

Black firefighters have long endured racial slurs and disparate treatment within the department, The Star reported in the series published Dec. 6. One recent example that stirred concerns inside and outside the department was when a white cadet put a rope around the neck of a Black classmate at the fire academy and announced that his favorite knot was a noose.

City officials and a group of Black firefighters demanded that the white cadet be fired, but he was allowed to resign after the union filed a grievance.

The Star's report described many other instances where Black firefighters had been harassed and experienced prejudice.

Within days of publication, Lake and City manager Brian Platt promised the city council that they would address issues of racial bias within the department through the labor contract, while ordering an investigation of past instances of discrimination and setting new policies to stem and address future instances of unfair treatment.

"Creating and maintaining a safe, positive and inclusive workplace that is free of discrimination and harassment is a top priority for the City," Platt said in a prepared statement within a progress report about those efforts that he provided at The Star's request.

Investigation coming

Along with outlining specifics of the labor agreement, the city administration hopes this week to unveil a proposed contract with an outside law firm charged with investigating "all of the claims set forth in the KC Star report, as well as any other EEO (equal employment opportunity) issues that may arise..."

Department critics had expected that the investigation would have begun by now, since the council ordered the review back in early January.

"It's taken them forever," Grant said.

The city said the council could consider the contract as early as this week, but did not promise that.

Platt said the city is also close to making good on its pledge to hire a chief equity officer, who will report to him and ensure that the city's policies on equal treatment of employees are supported and enforced throughout city government.

That chief equity officer will work with the person Lake picks to fill the new position of diversity and recruitment officer.

Sylvia Brown, president of a group of the Black firefighters known as EFFECT (Equality for Firefighters through Education, Community Service and Training), had hoped that job would be open to anyone in the fire department with an interest in making the organization more diverse.

But the city and Local 42 agreed that the job should be open only to captains, in part because their rank would convey authority.

By making it only open to captains, Brown said she fears the people who get that job might not have their heart in it or lack training for it. Someone on the verge of retirement, for instance, who wants to get off the fire truck and land a desk assignment.

It happens all the time, she said.

"Their bodies are worn out, they can't do it and don't want to exist in those situations the last two years of their career," Brown said, "so they go to an administration post where it's cushy."

The city countered those concerns indirectly by saying Lake is committed to diversifying the department and was so even before The Star's series. She will decide who gets the job.

The department plans to launch a "diversity recruitment drive" later this month that will help prepare minorities for the firefighter entrance test.

Back at City Hall, Platt said he has created a new division within the human resources department to handle employee discrimination complaints and has increased the number of investigators from four to six.

Firefighters' discrimination complaints will be handled outside the fire department from now on and an anonymous reporting system is being added for all city employees.

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(c)2021 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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