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FIREMAN, FIREMAN, SAVE MY JOB: Sometimes finishing at the head of the class doesn't pay off. Just ask Eric Deeken.
Deeken was one of the hundreds of applicants last year who took the physical and written tests to be a firefighter for the city of St. Louis. Deeken got the top score on the basis of his combined scores. So the uninitiated or unaware might have thought it wouldn't be long before Deeken was sliding down a pole, or walking out of a burning building with an infant, or, if you want to be catty, getting really good at pingpong or gin rummy while waiting for the next fire alarm.
But wait. There's this paragraph in the city charter that supposedly says city employees get preference in hiring. So that means any city employee who passes the test gets bumped ahead of Deeken or any other non-city employee, no matter how well he or she scored on the test. The pertinent phrases are in Article 18, Section 3, Paragraph E, although if you get on the infobahn, hit on stlouis.missouri.org and call up the 1914 city charter, as revised in 1941, you find a string of loopy sentence fragments that aren't all that clear -- typical city-charter gibberish.
The crucial paragraph has been interpreted by the city counselor's office to mean that city employees jump to the head of the employment line for other city jobs, including the fire department. According to city personnel director William Duffe, that means a "permanent city employee" (a lofty status that a new hire can achieve in six months to a year) gets preference over non-city employees, assuming the city employee also passes the test.
"Our charter says we have to give city employees first preference in hiring for vacancies," says Duffe. "It defines the eligibility as that they're merely eligible for the job and willing to take the promotion. So it's pretty broad, and there's people who don't like it. The firefighter's union has taken this up as a cause."
Firefighters Local 73 filed suit in March to overturn this procedure, and Deeken is one of five plaintiffs named in that suit. The lawyer for Deeken and the union, Richard Perkins, contends that the city hasn't given this preference consistently through the years, so to enforce it for firefighters is "arbitrary and capricious." Perkins maintains that this is made more critical because public safety is involved.
"From our side, we think our arguments make sense," says Perkins. "The No. 1 guy is not the guy being hired. He's bumped down to 96th, 97th. That just doesn't make sense -- the most qualified candidates aren't getting promoted, and the people who did significantly lower scores are getting the jobs."
Duffe doesn't think he has any choice in the matter.
"The policy is set in the city charter. Management, the personnel director or the fire chief don't have any discretion to not do it, as interpreted by the city counselor," says Duffe. "This is the law in the city of St. Louis. You can shoot at the law or you can shoot at me if you want to, but I'm just saying it is the law."
Charlene Hirschfeld, Deeken's sister, thinks the interpretation stinks and has been trying to draw attention to the fact that once current city employees are factored into the job pool, Deeken's name drops from first on the list to 97th, behind 96 city employees who want to be firefighters and also passed the test. The lowest-scoring city employee on the test, she says, came in 750th of the 773 who took the test but has been bumped ahead of her brother because of the city-charter interpretation.
And that's not all. Because of a court consent decree, for the fire department, the city has to hire one African-American for each white hired.
Apparently about 20 African-American city employees have applied to be firefighters, so Deeken's chances have dwindled. That sort of arrangement makes sense, because more than a century of racism has excluded African-American city residents from a fair shot at a firefighter's gig. But is there a need to give preference to city workers? Who can, with a straight face, maintain that city employees are in need of an extra break?
As if all this weren't enough, since the test was given last year some non-city employees who passed the test have taken city jobs to enhance their chances. At this rate, Deeken -- a 35-year-old who buys, rehabs and then sells houses for a living -- won't ever be hired as a firefighter.
"I tell people, 'I got to be honest with you: Get a city job -- it's the only way you're going to get on,'" says Duffe, citing jobs on city ambulances and in corrections as the most popular routes to the fire department. "But they're coming from all over. There are tree trimmers, utility workers, building inspectors -- people have funneled in from all over. The word has spread."
Sadly, many of the more than 700 who took the test last year didn't know that. They just had heard a bunch of firefighters might be retiring and were attracted to a job that could mean 95 working days a year, although those are 24-hour days. Hirschfeld thinks that if her brother had known, he wouldn't have bothered.