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Hospital Workers Union, Nursing Home Trade Shots in War of Words : Bilingualism: A labor organizer who spoke to a nurse in Tagalog files a federal complaint over the facility's 'English-only' policy.


A union representative who was banned from an Orange County nursing home for speaking the Filipino language Tagalog has filed a complaint with federal labor authorities.

The Hospital and Service Employees' Union Local 399 filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board this month against the Hillhaven Convalescent Hospital in Orange, charging discrimination based on national origin. The complaint was filed on behalf of Gabriel Espiritu, 46, of Glassell Park.

In filing their complaint, union attorneys said they hope to persuade the Hillhaven Corp.--a Tacoma, Wash., company that owns the Orange facility as well as thousands of other nursing homes nationwide--to change a restrictive language policy that requires English or the "majority" language of most patients to be spoken in any area where patients might overhear.

In an affidavit filed last week, Espiritu, who is Filipino, describes how he was told by a Filipina nurse not to speak Tagalog after he addressed her in their native language during a visit to the facility on Jan. 23 to introduce himself to union members.

Espiritu said that when he passed the nurse some time later, he again attempted to speak to her in Tagalog, but she ordered him not to in a raised voice. He reported the incident to the hospital's administrator the next day and was told the nurse was right--he was not allowed to speak Tagalog.

When the union business representative returned to the facility Feb. 1 to pick up ballots, the administrator threatened to call police unless he left immediately, Espiritu said. When he tried to leave a few minutes later, he said, police stopped him outside the hospital and he was cited for trespassing. Espiritu is scheduled to appear in court on that matter March 17.

Hillhaven spokesman Mark Timmerman said Espiritu showed a lack of concern for the facility's language policy.

"This is a case of someone who didn't care about the rules," Timmerman said. "This individual just stood there and declared he would speak any language he wanted to, regardless of the rules."

Espiritu denied making such a remark and said the administrator forced him to sit on the ground for almost three hours under "citizen's arrest" while police questioned both of them.

"It was humiliating, having this happen to me while I was on the job, in front of all the workers I represent," said Espiritu, who is also a graduate student at UCLA.

Two days later, representatives from the nursing home unsuccessfully tried to obtain a restraining order from the Orange County Superior Court barring Espiritu from the premises. A judge stipulated that Espiritu could only do business inside the facility's break room, said William Sokol, the lead attorney representing the union on Espiritu's behalf.

The same day, union attorneys filed their complaint against the hospital.

Espiritu's is the most recent language-related complaint filed against a Hillhaven facility in California. Trouble with bilingual employees began after the company adopted its current language policy for the western region in mid-1993. The rule states that the language spoken in a facility must be that of the majority of its residents, and that employees may only speak other languages out of their earshot, such as in the break room or outside the building.

Because Latinos and Filipinos represent a growing number of nursing home employees, the policy sparked controversy almost as soon as it was adopted. In the fall of 1993, four Filipino employees who were reprimanded for speaking Tagalog at a Hillhaven facility in the Bay Area filed discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The charges were dismissed due to a lack of evidence from witnesses early last year, but attorneys representing the Hospital and Service Employees' Union are determined to further challenge the policy, which they believe goes against guidelines set by the State Department of Health Services.

A letter sent last June to all skilled nursing and intermediate care facilities statewide by the Department of Health Services stated: "Each resident has the right to be fully informed of his or her total health status, in a language that he or she understands. At the same time, all employees have the right to communicate with each other in their primary language when not engaged in direct communication with, or providing care to a resident."

Sokol contends that Hillhaven's ban on employees speaking their primary language within earshot of patients is a violation of the state guidelines.

"We have to tell them that what they're doing is illegal," Sokol said. "They must be ordered to stop discriminating."

But Timmerman says the policy is not in violation of any laws and is not intended to be discriminatory. It was put in place primarily to safeguard the emotional well-being of elderly nursing home residents, he said.

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