Hispanic staff sue hospital over language issue

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Jul 14 13:28:42 UTC 2005


Hispanic staff sue Highland over language issue

Rochester Business Journal

July 13, 2005

    Hispanic workers at Highland Hospital claim the hospital is wrongly
muzzling Spanish speakers.  Joined by the U.S. Equal Employment
Opportunities Commission, housekeeping workers at Highland today filed a
suit in U.S. District Court in Rochester claiming that hospital officials
improperly forbade Spanish-speaking workers from conversing in their
native language.

      Sunu Chandy, senior trial attorney in the EEOCs New York City
office, called the alleged restrictions on Spanish speakers mean spirited
and done with no real business necessity.  Highland Hospital chief
operating officer Cindy Becker denied that the hospital had any such
policy. The lawsuit is based on a misunderstanding of a rule, which is
actually meant to curb discrimination by encouraging open communication
among workers of diverse backgrounds, she said.

        Hispanic workers at the hospital, including some with limited or
no proficiency in English, were warned to speak only in English at all
times, but no such restrictions were placed on other foreign language
speakers, maintained Nelson Thomas of Dolin, Thomas & Solomon LLP. The
Rochester employment attorney is handling the action for the Highland
workers, who are not involved in patient care, he said.  Staff were
allegedly disciplined for speaking Spanish on breaks and after they had
clocked out and were on their own time, Thomas said. In one instance a
worker was disciplined for replying in Spanish to a non-Hispanic colleague
who had first said hasta la vista to the Hispanic worker, he said. The
non-Hispanic worker who initiated the exchange was not disciplined.

      Becker painted an entirely different picture. The policy at the
center of the controversyput in place two years agod oes not forbid any
worker to speak in any language, she said.  The rule arose over complaints
by non-Hispanics that Spanish speakers would switch from English to
Spanish when non-Spanish speakers entered the room, a practice that
excluded non-Hispanics from conversations, Becker said.  Roughly 20
percent of the hospital's housekeeping staff speaks Spanish as a first
language, she said. All workers speak at least some English.

      We were very surprised to see that this suit was filed, Becker said,
citing a number of past attempts by Highland officials to clarify the
hospitals language policies.  The EEOCs decision to join the action is
significant, Thomas said.  Plaintiffs seeking to file discrimination suits
typically ask the federal anti-discrimination agency to review cases and
to issue a so-called right-to-sue letter. The EEOC itself files suit in
less than one-half of 1 percent of the cases it reviews, Thomas said.

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