After 28 years of service, two firefighters stationed at NASA’s Moffett Field in Mountain View have filed a discrimination lawsuit last week against the federal agency and two of its contractors.
Cameron Gazaway and Robert Wilson, the two plaintiffs in the case, allege that NASA and its joint employers – American Paragon Protective Services and Chenega Security and Support Solutions – discriminated against them based on factors of age, race and religion. The lawsuit alleges that the employers had wrongfully terminated their contracts after they complained and attempted to unionize, according to documents filed with the U.S. District Court’s San Jose Division on Sept. 18.
NASA ended its contracts with Gazaway and Wilson last September, stating that they did not fulfill a new obligation that required battalion chiefs to have an associate degree in fire science. They were informed that without the degree, they were no longer qualified to do the jobs they had been performing for more than 20 years, said Chambord Benton-Hayes, the attorney representing Gazaway and Wilson.
Given 45 days to meet the new requirement, Gazaway and Wilson contacted two different universities to inquire about the possibility of obtaining the AA degree, but were told it was not possible in the allocated time. NASA denied their requests for an extension and also rejected the universities’ certifications stating that their years of training and experience exceeded the AA degree requirements, according to the lawsuit.
A NASA spokesperson said that the agency was aware of the lawsuit, but does not comment on pending litigation.
It was a pretext for firing them, Benton-Hayes said, claiming that the requirement only applied to battalion chiefs at Moffett Field, and not at any other NASA site. It also meant that Gazaway and Wilson would have more educational training than their direct supervisor, the Fire Chief, she said.
For Gazaway and Wilson, who are in their mid-50s, they see the lawsuit as a response to years of discrimination by NASA employees, who mocked and belittled them because of their age, they said. Gazaway and Wilson described the annual fitness tests required by NASA as one example of the harassment they endured. The tests subjected them to taunts about their gray hair, stamina and competence.
“Because we cared so much about serving the community, we overlooked it,” Wilson said. “But it was very systemic, over time, these little events. And they finally crossed the line when they got rid of us,” he added.
Gazaway, who is African American and a Messianic Christian, said he also encountered racism and religious discrimination at NASA. Despite not practicing holiday celebrations, supervisors pressured Gazaway to participate in company events like Christmas parties and Easter egg hunts. He also regularly endured negative comments about his beard, which was part of his religion, Gazaway said.
Gazaway described another humiliating incident when he was accused of leaving pubic hair in a bathroom sink. He tried to explain that it was hair from his head, but he still was subjected to an investigation and disciplined for it, Gazaway said.
The lawsuit also alleges that Gazaway and Wilson were not fairly compensated for their work. Despite having strong performance evaluations – with Gazaway even featured on the Discovery Channel’s show, “Myth Busters,” as a NASA safety officer – they were not promoted in recent years and had difficulty taking vacation and sick leave.
To address these issues, Gazaway and Wilson started to form a union. But before it was recognized, they were terminated from their jobs, according to the lawsuit.
“NASA, I believe, took us for granted,” Gazaway said. “And we've seen this pattern happen to many other people throughout our careers. At some point, enough is enough. And (we) made the determination to stand up not only for ourselves, but also for those who, for whatever reason, didn't have the strength or energy to fight this fight,” he added.
Gazaway and Wilson are asking for compensation for lost wages, emotional distress, punitive damages and the associated costs of their attorney fees.
At the time of their termination, Gazaway and Wilson’s salaries were approximately $190,578 with health benefits of $13,220, according to the lawsuit.
In 2020, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena settled an age discrimination lawsuit for $10 million.