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Austin firefighters to vote on proposed new hiring agreement

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

The leaders of the Austin Fire Department and the Austin Firefighters Association (AFA) have signed off on an agreement to alter the process the department uses to hire new cadets. Their nearly yearlong dispute could be over as early as this week, after the union rank and file votes on the compromise.


However, if firefighters fail to approve the agreement, the union could file for a restraining order to halt the city’s current hiring process.


On Aug. 16, an arbitrator ruled in favor of the association in its grievance against AFD, confirming that the department’s hiring process was sacrificing aptitude on the altar of ethnic diversity.


The union’s main grievance was that the department was violating the collective bargaining agreement by assessing applicants’ performance on the cognitive portion of the exam pass/fail rather than as a graded portion of the overall test. The department argued that scoring the cognitive portion of the test would increase adverse impact, meaning it would decrease the number of minorities moving forward in the testing process and becoming cadets. The firefighters union countered that a scored cognitive portion is necessary for predicting an applicant’s actual abilities as a firefighter.


“The cognitive portion of the test is very predictive of how someone will perform on the job,” AFA President Bob Nicks told In Fact Daily. “But it’s also the only portion of the test that is really political because it has this potential for adverse impact. So it’s important we strike that balance to ensure the validity of the process.”


In response to the arbitrator’s decision last month, AFD immediately reordered the list of applicants involved in the department’s current hiring process to account for the new scoring system. One hundred fifty of the approximately 1500 candidates are moving forward in the process. At the same time, Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr and Nicks went behind closed doors to negotiate the best way to interpret the arbitrator’s decision for future hiring processes.


What they came up with is a Memorandum of Understanding with several new guidelines. For example, the cognitive portion of the test will now be worth no less than 16 percent of the final composite score. Since the cognitive portion is so predictive of future performance, said Nicks, it’s important that its mathematical weight stay consistent moving forward.


“We wanted to make sure the weight of the cognitive didn’t ever go below where it is now,” said Nicks.


Also in the agreement is a provision stating that the cognitive portion of the exam will test at least the following components: verbal comprehension, verbal expression, problem sensitivity, deductive and inductive reasoning, information ordering, mathematical reasoning, and numeric facility. In addition, any written integrity portions of future exams will be pass/fail. That’s important, said Nicks, because in the opinion of the association, the department has been scoring tests that assess personality predictors, like counterproductive work behaviors, in order to reduce adverse impact.


In a video sent out to the union membership, Nicks said that the agreement he and Kerr drew up is a good, if not great, compromise.


“I’m not doing back flips over the deal,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the best deal in the world … but it makes our current hiring process better in the future.”


Union members will have the chance to vote between today and Thursday to either agree to the memorandum or turn it down and seek a temporary restraining order against the department to shut down the current hiring process. Nicks says that would cost the union between $10,000 and $20,000 and wouldn’t necessarily meet the approval of a judge.


“According to our attorney, we have about a 50 percent chance of getting (a restraining order) through,” he said.

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