Texas: English test for airport employees doesn't fly

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Dec 10 14:15:48 UTC 2006

English test for airport employees doesn't fly
Austin quickly backs off plan to fire workers who fail proficiency exam.

By Kate Alexander AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF Saturday, December 09, 2006

A short-lived policy in Austin's aviation department that would have
required airport employees to pass an English proficiency test to keep
their jobs was rescinded Friday. Aviation director Jim Smith told
employees in a Nov. 30 memo that the ability to read, write and speak
English is essential to safety, security and customer service at
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. "A functional level of literacy
will be a job requirement for all Aviation employees and those who fail to
demonstrate the necessary level of proficiency can expect to be
terminated," Smith wrote. The city backed off the most Draconian
provisions of the policy in a memo issued by Assistant City Manager Rudy
Garza on Friday. The memo clarified that participation in English language
classes, which were offered in the original memo, was voluntary and
English proficiency will not be a condition of continued employment.

"No employee will be terminated or asked to resign if they choose to not
participate, do not complete the program, or do not successfully complete
the program," Garza wrote. This policy comes as local communities have
jumped into the spotlight of the national debates on illegal immigration
and English. The North Texas city of Farmers Branch recently enacted a
battery of anti-illegal immigration measures and declared English the
town's official language. The federal Transportation Security
Administration requires English proficiency of its screeners, but those
workers perform very different tasks from the city employees. The 340 city
employees at the airport provide groundskeeping and facility maintenance,
customer assistance and other services. Those workers are separate from
employees who work for airlines and the federal government.

It is not clear how many aviation department employees are non-English
speakers. The initial program would have offered a free, on-the-job
English language training program to employees who need to improve their
language skills. At the conclusion of the 48-week course, employees would
have been assessed for English proficiency. Those who did not pass were
told they would be let go, Smith wrote. The training will still be
available for aviation employees at a cost to the city of $40,000, but the
high-stakes test will no longer be required. The objective of the program
was to ensure that all employees could provide high quality customer
service and quickly understand any security changes. The city wanted to
"highly encourage" the airport employees to participate, Garza said.

But the ultimatum in the memo was "just a misunderstanding of what was
meant by 'highly encouraged,' " he said. Smith was out of the office
Friday and not available for comment, a city spokeswoman said. The policy
first came to light when the memo landed in the hands of the American
Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union that represents
some city workers,including some at the airport. Union officials passed it
on to Council Member Mike Martinez, who began to ask questions of city
management and the legal department Thursday. "I was concerned about the
potential legality of such a policy and what prompted a department
director to move in a policy direction that could be viewed as potentially
racist," Martinez said.

The voluntary program, which has the potential to help employees who want
to improve their language skill, has his full support, Martinez said.
Garza said he hopes the clarification quells the anxiety of some
employees. "We are very sensitive to the needs of our employees," Garza
said. "It is no secret that diversity in our community, diversity in our
work force is one of our key values." Union representative Carol Guthrie
said many employees were fretting that their jobs were on the line, and
she expects that there will be residual effects in the department. "That's
their livelihood, and somebody just threatened to take it away because
they don't speak English," Guthrie said. "Come on, they're not going to
trust" the department leaders.

Guthrie said this policy was moving forward unabated and could have been
expanded into other city departments if it took hold in the aviation
department. "If these people had not had a union, this would have
happened," Guthrie said. "I think Austin should be ashamed."

kalexander at statesman.com; 445-3618

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