“Excuse me, do white legs suffer more pain than brown legs?” is the central phrase in an EEOC complaint filed June 27 against the McNay Art Museum for wrongful termination. Former Security Guard Gloria Vasquez, a Native American of Mexican descent, says she uttered those words in frustration after being denied a stool to sit on, while another employee, a white woman, was allowed to sit down during the work day. As a result, Vasquez says, she was fired from the McNay June 13 for being an agitator.
“I wasn’t being racist,” Vasquez said. “I was just reacting to what was done to me. I was expressing my concern.”
The McNay says they didn’t fire Vasquez; she resigned. Because the dispute involves a personnel issue, McNay attorney Daniel Stern said they would be unable to comment further on the case.
Vasquez, 66, was one of about 30 senior citizens hired at the McNay this year through an American Association of Retired Persons employment program. She began work when the museum reopened earlier this month following a $50-million expansion. Because of the long hours and large crowds during the reopening events, she said, the guards’ allotted 15-minute breaks were sometimes almost four-and-a-half hours apart.
On June 12, Vasquez was scheduled to work from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. and by mid-afternoon her back and legs were aching. She asked a supervisor for a stool for later in the evening, when “the museum settles down,” and was told no one could sit down on the job. Over the radio, she was informed by a co-worker that another woman had been given a stool and, despite the cameras and circulating supervisors, was not reprimanded.
At a staff meeting that night, Vasquez approached her supervisor, Jim Jones, and told him about the discrepancy. Vasquez said she felt ignored as Jones discussed the issue with the woman who had been given a stool. That’s when Vasquez says she let slip the remark that cost her her job.
According to Vasquez, the following morning she was called in to meet with Jones and a Human-Resources representative, terminated, and escorted to gather her things — a small bowl and can of green beans — from her locker.
“They left me with no other choice, because I am not going to take this sitting down,” Vasquez said. “They violated my rights. I feel strongly that they used me as a scare tactic for all of the other minorities and women.”
Before her brief three-week stint at the McNay, Vasquez worked for two decades at the Internal Revenue Service, where she earned a prestigious award for her job performance. She said she was excited to get the job at the art museum and the termination felt like a failure. “All of my co-workers could see me because of the glass window,” Vasquez said. “I was being taken to the gallows. It was humiliating.”
Jaime Martinez, founder of the César Chávez March for Justice, who has been active in labor and civil-rights issues for 40 years, is volunteering his time to guide Vasquez through the process of filing her complaint against the McNay. He says Vasquez was denied due process. Why didn’t the McNay first issue a warning or use constructive discipline if they were unhappy with Vasquez’s job performance, he asks, especially if it was public knowledge that another woman was, in fact, sitting when Vasquez was denied a stool.
“The way they treated her, with coercion, intimidation, setting an example for everybody,” Martinez said, “that’s how they treat their workers there.”
Martinez said he believes the McNay took extreme steps with Vasquez because of her comment about discrimination. As upheld in recent Supreme Court cases, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers who complain of discrimination against retaliation by employers.
The McNay insists that there wasn’t a termination — and therefore no retaliation for Vasquez’s comments. Jones, Vasquez’s supervisor, confirmed that they summoned Vasquez for a conference, but insists she quit before they took any disciplinary action, a version of events repeated by AARP Project Director Eva Garcia.
“She decided, you’re not going to fire me, I’m quitting,” Garcia said.
“We are confident in how we handled it,” the McNay’s Melissa Baird told the Current. Baird and Jones also said that applicants are aware of the job’s physical requirement, although Jones said that security guards are usually not required to stand for more than two hours without a break.
Before filing with the EEOC, Vasquez and Grace Hernandez, president of Hispanic Women for Better Justice, sent certified letters to the McNay challenging her alleged resignation, but have received no response. Hernandez, 56, and with disabilities of her own, called the incident an injustice. She said Vasquez was just exercising her freedom of speech.
“If Rosa Parks stood up to speak up, to be known that she is a hardworking woman and had the right to sit down in the front seat or whatever seat was available, why can’t Mrs. Vasquez do the same?” Hernandez said. “`Vasquez’s` speaking up said, ‘Hey, my bones are just as brittle as yours, my bones hurt just as much as yours.’”
Vasquez is now waiting to see if the EEOC will take her case, but regardless of the complaint’s final resolution, for Vasquez, the mother of local American Indians-Texas representative and activist Ramon Vasquez, the incident seems to confirm the McNay’s reputation as the private museum on the hill — a reputation it has struggled to overcome.
“`Mrs. McNay` meant well,” she said the day her brief employment at the museum abruptly ended, “but it’s not for minority people.” •
Elaine Wolff contributed to the reporting of this story. Her father-in-law is a member of the McNay board of trustees.