Chicago firefighter gets $52K in back pay, retroactive promotion for test denied during military service

Former Reservist Derrick Strong will receive a retroactive promotion and lost wages after he was denied a Chicago Fire Department promotion exam when he returned from a deployment.Sun-Times file

Sun-Times file

A Chicago firefighter denied the right to take a promotional exam after returning from military service will receive a retroactive promotion and $52,000 in lost wages under a settlement announced Friday.

The Justice Department accused the city of violating federal law by refusing to let U.S. Army reservist Derrick Strong take the engineers’ test when he returned from a nine-month deployment in June 2017.

The city’s Department of Human Resources that administers promotional exams initially pointed the finger at Strong — by claiming that he was offered the chance to take the engineers’ exam while on active military duty and failed to take advantage of the opportunity.

When Strong returned to Chicago, he repeatedly asked to take the exam he missed. He finally got the chance in 2022.

Only after the former Army reservist passed with flying colors was he finally promoted to fire engineer. That’s also when the city changed its personnel policy to allow city employees to take “make-up promotional exams” upon their return from military service.  

Under the settlement, the city has agreed to retroactively adjust the effective date of Strong’s promotion to June 2018 and pay Strong $52,000 for his lost wages.

Strong could not be reached for comment. The Department of Human Resources referred calls to the mayor’s office, which had no immediate comment.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), whose Far Northwest Side ward is home to scores of firefighters and police officers, said it should not have taken a federal lawsuit to give Strong access to the promotion exam he deserved.

“When it comes to our military men and women, we should be bending over backward to give them the ability to take their tests, even if they’re activated and overseas. These are people that are double-serving their country and their city,” said Napolitano, who has served the city as a police officer and firefighter.

Napolitano said he’s also fielded complaints that “a couple hundred” firefighters who were promoted months ago to engineer or lieutenant are still being paid as firefighters. Scores of other firefighters are still waiting for their so-called “step” raises and for the “incredible amounts of overtime” they earned during the pandemic, he said.

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), another former firefighter, said he’s been told an “honest screw-up” caused the “back pay fiasco” and that it will soon be resolved.

“The city admits they totally screwed up. There’s no excuse for it. They’re working on resolving it, and hopefully, this never happens again. That’s a good enough answer for me,” Sposato said.

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