"My initial feeling was that I hadn't been treated badly enough," former Meow Wolf employee Tara Khozein tells SFR. "But that's me—that's most women; I think that's common, but what I really adamantly believe was that 'common' doesn't make it OK."
Khozein came to SFR to discuss her experiences working for arts juggernaut Meow Wolf, where she was hired on a part-time basis as a performance content director last September. She alleges, however, that her weekly pay of $384.61 fell below Santa Fe's minimum wage requirements as she regularly worked more than 40 hours per week. Additionally, Khozein says, she emailed Meow Wolf's Vice President of Human Resources Marianne Palacios in January with concerns about racial and gender discrimination she had witnessed. In that email, Khozein claims she offered to help develop and implement better systems among staff and management, but received no reply. Instead, she lost her job in February.
"I was fired without cause. I was never given a reason," Khozein says. "And then I was immediately offered a contracted position, and so there wasn't any disinterest in continuing to work with me."
Khozein, who says she was told the decision came down from Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek, declined the contract offer. But more than being a monetary decision, Khozein says the choice to leave was mainly due to a pattern of misogyny she'd both witnessed and been informed about from other women on the staff.
"I'd heard some horrendous things about the treatment of women in the company, so I knew that was happening. But after I spoke with [attorney] Holly [Agajanian]," she says, "I realized my experience was quite conventional and gentle in contrast with the experience of other women who worked there."
Gina Maciuszek, for example, who was hired as a content director for Meow Wolf last October, says that after lodging formal complaints she was being evaluated and treated disproportionately from her male counterparts, Palacios and Kadlubek told her more than one time that she was "too assertive." Meow Wolf top brass later told her that, following an investigation, there was "no path forward" for her within the company. She was fired in November, also with no explanation, and both Maciuszek and Khozein maintain they were not otherwise given direction or feedback when it came to their job performance.
The women filed a lawsuit in Santa Fe's First Judicial District Court this week alleging a commonplace practice of discrimination and gender bias within Meow Wolf's corporate culture, as well as breach of contract and "a pattern of practice subjecting female employees to different compensation, terms, conditions and/or privileges of employment than their male colleagues."
They are seeking to have the case recognized as a class action suit, and their attorneys estimate that at least 50 other women employees of Meow Wolf have faced similar conditions when they worked for the organization between 2017 and the present. The court action lists as defendants several individuals: CEO and board member Kadlubek; Palacios, the vice president of human resources; Nicolas Gonda, identified as the head of Meow Wolf Entertainment; and the Meow Wolf board of directors, which includes chief operating officer Sean Di Ianni, Peter Zandan, Winston Fisher and Stewart Alsop.
SFR attempted to reach multiple members of Meow Wolf's board of directors Wednesday for comment, but none replied. Kadlubek declined an interview and provided a written statement via text message which in part reads, "We deny these allegations and are committed to fair employment practices, equitable pay and supportive treatment of all employees no matter gender, ethnicity, sexuality or beliefs."
Khozein, meanwhile, says she hopes the suit and its claims are the tip of the iceberg in revealing problems in the organization, but hopes it can usher in a more inclusive era wherein Meow Wolf employees are treated more fairly.
"It's not across the board," she explains. "There are a lot of really beautiful people who work there, and smart people who work there, but there's a model that's common in young disorganized companies where people at the top can ask for whatever they want, and the people at the bottom will scramble to make it happen. It's an established power dynamic in that company, it's openly talked about among the staff."
Meow Wolf as we know it opened in 2016 in the former Silva Lanes bowling alley in Santa Fe, and has since grown into an internationally recognized entity and one of the city's largest employers according to the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce. It is incorporated in the state of Delaware. Recent announcements have included expansion projects in Colorado, Washington, DC, and Nevada, as well as plans for an art-themed experiential hotel and installation in Phoenix, Arizona. Earlier this year, the company also announced it was raising its base pay for employees to $17 an hour.
As for Khozein, she's ready to see this through as far it will go.
"Why am I doing this?" she says. "I grew up here, and I was thrilled when George RR Martin bought that bowling alley and I had a chance to become a part of something that overcame the inertia of the desert. I want it to be successful, but I don't want it to be successful at the cost of women's lives and dignity."