For six years, Maelena West and Diana Holland worked as operation managers at the Marian House Soup Kitchen. Their jobs involved everything from stocking shelves to overseeing the 20-plus volunteers that put hot meals on 450 plates each day.
Both women say they loved their jobs and that they believe in the mission of Catholic Charities and the people it brought together. As they see it, there was just one problem: They're both women.
Last week, West and Holland filed a sexual discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after being fired from their jobs in March. The charges allege verbal hostility from their manager, Frank Crosson, for a period of more than two years. Both women claim Crosson treated them differently than their male colleagues, slamming doors in their faces, reprimanding them in front of volunteers and clients, and referring to them as "you girls."
Crosson was terminated with West and Holland in mid-March. Neither Crosson nor Catholic Charities officials would comment on the reasons for any of their recent firings.
According to West and Holland, relations with Crosson reached a boiling point in the winter of 2002, and they filed a grievance with Catholic Charities. Tensions, they claim, were palpable for most of that year until Crosson placed them on a week of paid administrative leave as a "cooling off" period.
West and Holland said that things did not cool off, so they requested the situation be resolved through formal mediation. According to Krzysztof Myszkowski, then Catholic Charities executive director, the mediation process he mandated seemed to be effective.
"As far as I knew, things were hunky-dory managementwise," Myszkowski said. Both West and Holland agree that the mediation process helped the situation.
However, tensions escalated when Myszkowski left his job due to health reasons last October. In the ensuing six months, West and Holland said the situation again reached a boiling point, prompting them to complain to the Catholic Charities human resources director, Barbara Blumer.
West and Holland said they were both surprised by their firings, which were issued in letters signed by the interim executive director, Robert Doerfler.
According to Holland's letter, she was dismissed for "disrespectful and bullying behavior with co-workers and supervisors, refusal to respect or accept authority," among other reasons. West said the reasons for her dismissal were similar.
While the women initially sought consultation from a private attorney, they were advised to file an EEOC charge. Patricia McMahon, a program analyst with the EEOC's Denver district, said that charges typically take between six to eight months to investigate. McMahon said EEOC policy forbids her from commenting on, or even confirming, the existence of any charges or the history of charges against an employer.
Don't want money
According to the EEOC's figures, charges of sex-based discrimination account for approximately 30 percent of all filed charges in 2003. Just over 7 percent resulted in "probable cause" findings, which vindicate the complainant and often serve as a stepping-stone to reparative measures like job reinstatement or back pay.
Because they have since found employment elsewhere, West and Holland say they're not interested in money, but in holding their former employer accountable and ensuring that future female employees won't be treated the same way.
Holland said she's particularly rankled by Catholic Charities denial of West's unemployment claim.
"This is supposed to be a charitable organization that helps people in need," Holland said. "Firing her is one thing, but to deny her a right ... it just wasn't a Christian thing to do."