State officials are investigating recent changes made to the Los Angeles Fire Department’s hiring process after a complaint from a white male applicant who says he was unfairly passed over.
In July, city officials introduced a lottery system to winnow a pool of thousands of applicants for spots in a new recruit class scheduled to begin in December. The change was part of an overhaul of the LAFD hiring process, which was suspended earlier this year amid claims of mismanagement and possible nepotism.
About 300 applicants were allowed to advance via the lottery. To further Mayor Eric Garcetti's goal of diversifying the department, each gender and ethnic group also was guaranteed a percentage of slots equal to their proportion of the initial applicant pool.
Robert F. Holmes, 34, was one of the more than 10,000 applicants who applied under the new system. When his name wasn't picked to advance to the written exam, background check and scored interview that decide who is hired, he filed a complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
“Sampling an applicant’s ethnicity before they even test doesn't sound right to me,” Holmes said in an interview. “If I'm not selected because my test scores aren't up there, I'm fine with that. I just think everybody should be able to test.”
White males such as Holmes accounted for 35% of the overall applicant pool, city records show. The city's new screening method is intended to eliminate the possibility that, by random chance, small groups of applicants, such as Native Americans, would be passed over, according to Bruce Whidden a spokesman for the city Personnel Department.
Whidden said the city was making a good faith effort to be fair in reducing the pool of applicants without disadvantaging any group. "If you’ve got 5% women in the door, you’ve got 5% women going to the test," he said.
A state investigator interviewed Holmes last month and contacted the city to gather more information, according to state officials and documents obtained by The Times. State investigators will weigh the city's response and determine whether the lottery violates state law, which forbids discrimination based on race or gender.
"We can't comment on this particular case, as we don't discuss pending litigation” said Marie Lloyd, a spokeswoman for the mayor. “We remain firmly committed to reforming the Fire Department and its hiring process. The previous process was lacking in common sense and required a significant overhaul."
Garcetti suspended LAFD hiring in March, saying that reforms would be implemented after outside experts from Rand Corp. completed a review. But with the $270,000 report behind schedule and pressure on to grow the LAFD force, city officials decided to restart hiring, using the new lottery to determine who could take the firefighter test.
UC Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, who has advised city officials on government reform issues, said that the legality of lotteries like the one used for LAFD hiring is untested. He said he doesn't think the system runs afoul of state rules that outlaw government hiring quotas for women and minorities.
“There's just no law to give a definitive answer,” Chemerinsky said. “It looks a lot like a quota. But there is nothing in a lottery that is discriminatory.”
Holmes, a licensed emergency medical technician, said he now works for the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in Las Vegas. If the state dismisses his complaint, he said, he will consider suing the city.
Spokesmen for the LAFD and City Atty. Mike Feuer declined to comment.
A drawing for the second LAFD recruit class budgeted this year is planned for next week, Whidden said.