Language Liability: the Story of Pedro Gonzalez

Francis Hult francis.hult at
Wed Apr 15 01:35:43 UTC 2009

Via lgpolicy-list at ...

Language Liability: the Story of Pedro Gonzalez
By Michael A. Wilner
April 13, 2009

Pedro Gonzalez worked at Collins Dining Hall for nine years. His story
is a familiar one in the Hispanic community: working eight hours a day
for $10.50 an hour, Pedro supports himself in Ontario as well as his
wife and two sons in Mexico City. This past December, Pedro's family
faced sudden, same-day eviction threats from its apartment landlord.
Because of the urgent circumstance, his family and his lawyer insisted
he fly back to Mexico - immediately. Ownership of the property was
under his name, and his presence was demanded in court if he wanted to
keep their home. So he flew back that day, on December 16, and made
sure his sister contacted Collins management to let them know of the
family emergency. She did, but she didn't get far. Pedro was fired.

The Human Resources Department at Claremont McKenna College was fully
within protocol when they let Pedro go. Still, ethical questions
remain surrounding the treatment of Pedro - and his Hispanic
colleagues. In the Staff Manual last updated in 2004, CMC policy
outlines "at-will" employment as the ability to fire "with or without
notice, with or without cause." The manual outlines typical reasons
for leave: vacation, personal holiday, sickness, bereavement,
disability, parental, and medical. But when outlining leave of absence
for personal reasons, policy requires that "it is clearly understood
whether or not the position will be held open for the employee's
return." Pedro didn't know this policy, and neither does half the
Collins staff: the manual is only printed in English, and more than
half of the workers speak Spanish as a first language. Their general
manager at Collins, Pam Franco, does not speak Spanish. This same
problem persists for grounds workers, with 50 percent speaking English
with only colloquial capacity.

An additional part of the controversy has swirled around the
bureaucracy revealed within our small liberal arts college. After
making contact with the Human Resources Department - at which no one
speaks Spanish - Pedro was told on January 15 that his vacation time
would not be approved as an excuse of leave. Susan Cozzitarto,
director of Human Resources, told him that he would have to fly back
to Los Angeles to fill out the appropriate paperwork by January 19,
despite a court hearing requiring his attendance in Mexico on January
30. "After almost a decade of service, you'd think they would cut him
some slack," said Carlos Rivas, CMC '12. "He doesn't have the money to
fly back and forth with his meager hourly wage, and a school that
prides itself on community should understand that."

Student anger has grown across the consortium since Pedro was fired.
The Worker's Support Committee, consisting mostly of Pomona and Pitzer
College students, has prepared a petition in support of his rehiring.
Students from the organization cite numerous reasons to justify the
move, including the fact that Pedro had more than enough vacation time
to cover his absence. But their primary reason is a sense that Pedro's
language proved a liability in and of itself, in a circumstance
treated with insouciance in a small, intimate campus community.

Cozzitarto told the Port Side that the Human Resources Department
wouldn't discuss Pedro's case with "other individuals or the media,"
citing their policy of "strict confidence" for past employees. But she
did sit down and discuss the matter with members of the Worker's
Support Committee, along with Chef Alberto and Pam Franco. "They
reviewed policy with us and told us their point of view about why
Pedro was fired," said one Pomona senior in attendance. HR holds that
the College must stick to protocol while respecting campus community.
Cozzitarto promised the Worker's Support Committee that she spoke to
Pedro very slowly to make sure he understood these policies.

For some students, the current standard of conduct held over staff
management may be whether the flowers are watered and the drink
machines are filled. But the treatment of staff is as much a component
to the quality of our community as the treatment of students. The
controversy, then, is threefold: if decade-old employees (if not all
employees) should be given courtesy in extraordinary circumstances; if
the school should modify its resources to acknowledge the huge number
of Hispanics employed; and if the student body is going to take an
active role in pushing for change. Pedro's case raises these
questions, pertinent only to those who wish not to see it repeated.

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