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Healthcare firm accused of punishing Spanish-speakers settles suit

April 16, 2009|Teresa Watanabe

Latino workers in California and Texas allegedly punished for speaking Spanish in their workplaces will be granted up to $450,000, free English classes and other relief under a consent decree approved this week in a class-action lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Los Angeles.

The lawsuit alleged that Skilled Healthcare Group Inc. and affiliated firms, based in Orange County with facilities in six Western and Southern states, enforced an English-only rule against Latinos but not other ethnic groups speaking Tagalog and other languages.

Latino workers were prohibited from speaking Spanish to Spanish-speaking nursing home residents, disciplined for speaking their native tongue in the parking lot on breaks and subjected to other forms of discrimination and harassment, said Anna Park, the EEOC's regional attorney in Los Angeles.

"In the most diverse state in the nation, employers should not single out certain languages and cultures for harsher treatment," Park said.

The healthcare firm's attorney, however, vigorously disputed the allegations and said the two sides settled the lawsuit without testing the claims as a way to avoid costly and time-consuming litigation.

Attorney Thomas Mackey said the first complaint was filed in 2002, when the skilled nursing facilities were under different management. But he asserted that even then the firm never employed an "English-only policy."

He said managers always encouraged employees to speak in the language most comfortable for residents, including Spanish.

Two of the claimants, however, asserted otherwise. Shilo Schilling, a 40-year-old certified nursing assistant, said she was emphatically told at orientations at two of the group's Torrance facilities that only English would be allowed.

"I was kind of in a daze," said Schilling, the bilingual daughter of a Mexican mother and Hawaiian father. "I thought, 'OK, then how are we supposed to communicate with our Spanish-speaking patients?' "

In one case at the Royalwood Care Center in Torrance, she said, a resident told her in Spanish that she needed to use the restroom. When Schilling responded in Spanish, she said, she was told by a supervisor that she would be written up or fired if she continued to speak that language.

Yet some of the supervisors and charge nurses would speak a different language, such as Tagalog, she said. She left the firm after less than a year.

Jose Zazueta, a Mexico native who worked as a janitor at the Royalwood facility, filed the original complaint alleging that he was fired because he could not guarantee he would speak only English. Park said Zazueta was a monolingual Spanish-speaker who warned a colleague in Spanish to watch out for the wet floor he had just mopped. When a supervisor heard him, Park said, he was asked to pledge to use only English but could not and was fired.

English-only workplace policies are allowed if there is a business necessity for them, Park said. Mackey said that federal law also allows employers to ask employees who can speak English to do so.

He said sorting out the claims among employees who were bilingual and those who said they were monolingual could have required extensive litigation, one reason the two sides agreed to resolve the lawsuit.

Under the consent decree, the Skilled Healthcare Group will pay $180,000 for distribution among 53 claimants and offer them free English classes. If they complete them, they will receive another $2,500 each. In addition, the firm agreed to provide anti-discrimination training at its facilities and appoint a monitor to oversee efforts to comply with federal law.

The lawsuit was part of a growing raft of charges filed nationwide alleging national origin discrimination. In 2008, filings increased to a record high of 10,601, up 13% from the previous year. Among them, 204 filings involved English-only rules, up from 125 cases two years earlier, according to EEOC figures.

Filings alleging national origin discrimination in the Los Angeles area were twice as high as the national average, 27% of all complaints compared with 11.4% nationwide.

"We are seeing a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment and the demonization of one group," Park said.

Schilling said she hoped the settlement would bring broader understanding of the region's diverse needs.

"I think everyone has the right to speak in the language they feel most comfortable with," she said.


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