An upbeat 1997 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune referred to them as elves-those deft, behind-the-scenes workers who paint walls, build pedestals, hang artwork and generally do whatever's necessary to stage the large, traveling art exhibits that regularly make their way through local museums. The workers profiled in that story had their share of problems-long hours, cumbersome pieces of art, the handling of which sometimes led to injury-but they seemed a happy lot who enjoyed their work.
Seven years later, there's a handful of former San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) elves-or preparators, as they're more commonly called-who've come forward with some not-so-pleasant stories to tell: work-site injuries, grueling schedules, alleged labor-code violations and an organization that they believe treated them as expendable, temporary labor rather than skilled artisans loyal to their work.
Last fall, seven former employees of SDMA's design and installation department-the museum unit responsible for installing new and traveling exhibits-brought a lawsuit against the museum alleging, among other things, unsafe working conditions, demands by supervisors that they work more than what's allowed under state law and that supervisors in that particular department cut them loose after the workers voiced their grievances.
Also named in the lawsuit were Remedy Intelligent Staffing and Manpower Inc., both temporary staffing agencies that, according to court records, provided payroll services for the museum's design and installation department. Plaintiffs contend that they were joint employees of the museum and the temp agencies but oftentimes were left in limbo when it came to issues like benefits and workers compensation, unsure which party was in charge of which aspect of their employment.
Plaintiff Karie Dzenkowski-Castillo said she's done design and installation work for other local museums but SDMA was the only one to require her to sign on with a temp agency. Though preparators might do work for several museums in Balboa Park, all work is done on a temporary basis-work is sporadic and rarely do museums keep preparators on staff.
"I was hired by the Museum [of Art] with one of their supervisors," Dzenkowski-Castillo explained. "I applied directly [with the museum] and filled out an application, went through an interview. It wasn't until I was told, "OK show up this day'... that I then found out I had to fill out more paperwork and we were routed through an agency."
The lawsuit also alleges that neither the museum nor the staffing agencies provided proper oversight when it came to work schedules. In one instance, some design and installation workers worked three weeks straight in preparation for the museum's fall 2002 Vital Forms exhibit. A deposition given by a Remedy supervisor said this was fine as long the workers were given time off within that same month.
The lawsuit was set to go to trial Aug. 20 but on Aug. 1 all parties sat down for a mediation meeting. Paul Jackson, attorney for the museum workers, declined to comment on the meeting. However, SDMA attorney Leonid Zilberman said it appears the parties have agreed to settle. Details of the settlement are confidential, he said.
Prior to the mediation meeting, though, Superior Court Judge Patricia Cowett essentially gutted the case, Zilberman said, tossing out 11 of the 14 complaints the workers brought against the museum. Some of the more serious allegations involving health and safety issues couldn't be brought forward by individuals and instead would have had to first been investigated by the state labor board, Cowett ruled.
Speaking to CityBeat days before the settlement, Dzenkowski-Castillo said the lawsuit wasn't about animosity toward the museum. Rather, she hoped it would draw attention to the often-dangerous conditions under which she and other preparators say they worked at SDMA. As the museum became more ambitious in the scope and size of its exhibits, pressure on preparators grew to a point where work demands but the workers' health and safety in jeopardy, said Jessica Stinson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who had worked for the museum as a preparator for 10 years but had never been considered anything more than a temporary employee.
"You basically had to go to bed, get up and get back to work," said Stinson. "You started having more fatigue-type injuries, people actually falling asleep on the job."
"It's not an attack on the museum," said Dzenkowski-Castillo of the lawsuit. "We love the institution, and we all want to be there." None of the seven plaintiffs were asked back to work by the design and installation department after they began to express concerns about working conditions. The last day any of them did work for that department was Oct. 25, 2002. Some of the plaintiffs, including Dzenkowski-Castillo, have done work for a different museum department, though she said that, overall, her workload isn't as consistent as it once was.
Dzenkowski-Castillo and Stinson said they've always wanted to return to work at the museum. "I'm sorry I addressed certain issues," said Dzenkowski-Castillo, "but I need to be safe in the environment I work in. I don't want anybody else to be injured."
According to court documents, in March of 2002, Dzenkowski-Castillo, then 25, was cutting lumber with a table saw the museum had recently purchased. A piece of wood ricocheted off the saw and struck her in the hip. She later found out that the safety guard that would have prevented the wood from shooting out-a device required by law-had been left in a storage building across the park.
Dzenkowski-Castillo said she was first told to "walk it off" and then put in a supervisor's truck and taken to a doctor's office in Hillcrest. It wasn't until her husband showed up that she was granted an X-ray that showed she had fractured her pelvis. During the next several months-one of which she was unable to work and six of which she spent undergoing rehabilitation, Dzenkowski-Castillo found out that either the temp agency or the museum had classified her as a clerical worker.
"None of us ever put "clerical worker' on our packages when we signed up with the museum," she said. "The associate at Remedy asked, "What are you doing on a table saw?' It created a lot of ruckus."
Dzenkowski-Castillo's run-in with the table saw was one component of the lawsuit Judge Cowett tossed out. Prior to this week's settlement, attorney Jackson had planned to appeal the judge's ruling if the lawsuit had gone to trial. Under SB 796-informally known as the "sue your boss" bill, and signed into law by former Gov. Gray Davis-individual workers, like Dzenkowski-Castillo, can sue their employer for violations such as missing safety equipment. Jackson said he planned to argue that the bill is retroactive and therefore applies to Dzenkowski-Castillo's March 2002 injury.
"They're fools if they don't go back and try to change what's going on in the workplace so that the next person doesn't do the same thing, but there won't be a formal court order that says you're required to put the kick-back guard on the table saw and leave it there," Jackson said, prior to the mediation.He added that it appears the museum has upgraded its safety equipment regardless. An expert witness he sent to the museum reported back that there were "new facemasks, warning signs, safety devices and lights in places that really needed light."