Federal complaint filed on discrimination and retaliation in the San Antonio Fire Department
Emilie Eaton, San Antonio Express-News
May 14–A San Antonio firefighter alleged in a federal complaint that three of his supervisors discriminated against him by asking him to take off his taqiyah, a prayer cap worn by Muslim men for religious purposes.
Firefighter John McNees also asserted that department officials retaliated against him for reporting the discrimination to the city’s Human Resources Department. As a result of coming forward, he said, fire department officials made him sign an order saying he would cover his tattoos.
“Many other employees have tattoos and are not required to cover their tattoos,” McNees wrote in the complaint, naming the other employees.
“I believe I was discriminated because of my religion, Islam, and that I was and continue to be retaliated against pretextually for reporting this discrimination.”
A city investigation into McNees’ claims found there was no evidence of retaliation, prompting him to file the complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws.
Laura Mayes, a city spokeswoman, said the city also investigated his religious retaliation claim – though she did not specify the city’s findings.
“The City granted the request for accommodation to wear a taqiyah,” Mayes said. “It would have been a violation of City policy if his request had not been accommodated.”
The federal complaint, filed in April, is among a handful of grievances that employees with the fire department have recently filed with the EEOC, alleging sex discrimination, religious discrimination and retaliation.
Three unrelated complaints filed by employees currently or formerly with the Arson Bureau made similar allegations – specifically, that they were retaliated against for speaking out about issues within the department.
According to a statement McNees gave city officials, McNees was working Feb. 5, 2020, at Fire Station 8 on the West Side when he was told by Lt. Justin Hosek to follow him outside to speak to Battalion Chief Wesley West.
Once outside, McNees said, West told him he was not in compliance with the department’s uniform policy because he was wearing a taqiyah on his head.
“Take that thing off your head,” McNees recalled West telling him.
McNees said he explained to West that he wore the taqiyah because he was Muslim and that he “was not trying to cause any problems.”
“I don’t care,” McNees recalled West saying. “I’m Catholic.”
According to McNees, West told McNees that he was giving him a direct order. He said McNees could “either take that off your head right now or you can go home.”
McNees told the chief that he would go home, he wrote. He went back indoors to pack his belongings.
Hosek, who had been listening to the entire conversation, followed McNees indoors and asked where McNees was going. McNees explained that the chief sent him home.
“The lieutenant then told me that the chief didn’t send me home, that was a choice that I had just made,” McNees wrote.
McNees followed Hosek back outside, at which point West explained that they were going to the Public Safety Headquarters downtown to speak to the shift commander.
McNees spoke to a union representative there who told him that it appeared to him that McNees was being given a lawful order. By not removing his head cover, the union representative said, McNees could be disciplined.
“(I) told him that I was not trying to do anything wrong,” McNees wrote. “However because of other Muslim firefighters that I currently know and any future Muslim, Jewish, female, African American, etc. firefighters that might be hired I had to respectfully continue to refuse to follow this order.”
“I stated that if I do not fight this now other employees in the future would have a harder time than myself practicing their religion and I could not let that happen,” McNees added.
McNees said he and the union leader went into a conference room, where West and two other chiefs were waiting for him: the shift commander, Assistant Chief Richard Guisti, and McNees’ direct chief, Battalion Chief Wally Yates.
“Chief Guisti had all of the uniform policies laid out on the table, and explained to me that Chief West had complained to him about my taqiyah as well as a small four leaf clover tattoo I have under my right eye,” McNees wrote.
“He then told me that I had to cover my small tattoo immediately because he was afraid that the general public would think that I was a prior convict.”
West proceeded to ask if McNees would be willing to temporarily wear an SAFD baseball cap over his taqiyah to hide it from the public view.
“I told the chief that I simply wanted to do my job, and if that’s what it was going to take to do that I guess I would,” McNees wrote.
McNees, at Guisti’s direction, said he agreed to sign paperwork saying he would cover his tattoos. Later, he explained that he signed the paperwork because he feared the chiefs would discipline him.
A few months later, according to McNees, Guisti “threatened” Yates after a meeting at Station 8.
“(He) was told if I did ANYTHING wrong my captain, himself and myself would be punished,” McNees wrote.
In June, McNees filed his complaint with the city’s Human Resources Department. He also provided the Human Resources representative a department video depicting another firefighter with visible tattoos on his neck.
“Here is an example of how I am being forced to comply with a policy that was re-written for myself only,” McNees wrote in an email.
“This firefighter as well as everyone else was “grandfathered” into the amended tattoo policy,” McNees wrote. “The police are also no longer covering theirs … Why am I being treated differently than everyone else?”
On March 29, Interim Human Resources Director Renee Frieda sent McNees an email saying his claims were “not corroborated.”
West, Guisti and Hosek were all told that the use of religious headgear was permissible, Mayes said.
Giusti left the department earlier this year after he was selected as the Fire Chief of the Bryan Fire Department.
“The original complaint was investigated, but the focus of the investigation was not the discrimination against my religion I reported, it turned out to be about me and my tattoos,” McNees wrote in his federal complaint to the EEOC.
“Ultimately, the City found my religious complaint to be unsubstantiated, which I strongly disagree with.”
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