Paula Soriano's job for a telephone company in California's Central Valley was driving her nuts.
Because she spoke Spanish, she was always being interrupted by co-workers who had non-English-speaking customers on the line. Some days, translations made up half her workload, she said.
Soriano, a customer service representative, had not been hired because of her bilingual ability and she was not being paid more for it. In fact, she believed that she was being penalized: Her company's worker-productivity formula gave her no credit for the time she spent helping other reps with their Spanish calls.
Refused to Translate
And so one day in 1987, the embittered, middle-aged widow flatly refused to translate a call.
Soriano's truculence was left to simmer as an isolated gripe until last month, when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles against her employer, Contel Service Corp. The government charged that Contel was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by requiring Soriano to speak Spanish without compensation.
The suit is the first in the nation to raise the question of whether private businesses should be compelled to pay higher wages to workers who must make extensive use of a second language, the EEOC says.
It contains implications that intrigue workers and frighten some employers. Take a common scenario: A supervisor learns a secretary is bilingual when he overhears her speaking Spanish during a break, and then begins to add translations to her duties. Does that constitute harassment based on national origin?
The circumstances of the Soriano case have touched a raw nerve among tens of thousands of workers who are often hired because they speak two languages and who gradually become their company's bridge to a swelling pool of non-English-speaking customers and clients.
In offices, factories, hospitals and supermarkets, these employees are routinely required to break away from their assigned tasks to interpret phone calls, deal with counter inquiries and translate or draft letters. The added responsibilities often create far more disruption and pressure than is faced by monolingual employees assigned to the same job.
The uncompensated use of bilingual workers is "both a nuisance and sheer exploitation of someone's additional skills," said Antonio Rodriguez, an attorney affiliated with the Latino Community Justice Center in East Los Angeles. "You're looking at companies that would lose their trade . . . or would have to hire professional translators . . . if these employees refused to use their bilingual skills."
Bilingual bonuses as high as several thousand dollars a year for teachers, police, nurses and other workers have become institutionalized in government agencies, particularly in California, which in 1973 passed a law requiring public agencies to increase the number of bilingual employees in "public-contact" positions.
But in the private sector in California, only 5% to 8% of businesses pay additional compensation to public-contact workers, according to an estimate by the Merchants and Manufacturers Assn., a statewide employers group.
To many economists, the business community is simply enjoying an imbalance in the job market, said Richard Belous, a senior economist with the National Planning Assn., a research group sponsored by business and labor. Management benefits from the swelling number of bilingual Latinos and Asians who, in the competitive search for jobs--particularly at the bottom rung--are in no position to ask for more money.
'Complaints Have Increased'
Among employees, however, resentment abounds.
"We have heard complaints like (Soriano's) for a long time and the number of complaints have increased in the last couple of years," said Jose Roberto Juarez Jr., regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
"People are beginning to realize that the things they started doing as a favor to an employer have now become a very burdensome part of their job. . . . A year or two down the road, the employee becomes extremely frustrated because he sees he's expected to do more for that amount of pay," Juarez said.
Many employers "have taken the attitude that because there are a lot of Asians and Latinos who are in the area, they might as well hire them and use their language as an added benefit but not pay them for it, and it wouldn't matter because there are so many unemployed people that they won't complain," said Diane Pasillas, executive director of the 600-member Latin Business Assn.
In contrast to Latino rights groups, the Asian Pacific Legal Center, an influential organization in fighting discrimination against Asians, has not received many complaints from bilingual employees, according to Kathy Imahara, a staff attorney who works for the center's language-rights project. "Asians have a tendency not to complain a lot," she said.