Florida: Seminole County school workers ordered to speak ingles only
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Sat May 3 13:09:32 UTC 2008
Seminole County school workers ordered to speak ingl�s onlyA complaint is filed with Seminole schools calling rule 'unlawful anddiscriminatory.'
Sentinel Staff Writer
May 1, 2008
When Carolina Jurado moved to the United States from Panama severalyears ago, she knew English would become a part of her daily life.But she never thought she would be forbidden to speak her nativeSpanish. Jurado had worked for a year at Crystal Lake ElementarySchool in Lake Mary before a supervisor ordered her and fellowHispanics on the cafeteria staff in September to stop speaking theirnative language on the job.From then on, it would be English-only in the kitchen, based on aSeminole County school-district workplace policy that applied only tokitchen workers.They could speak Spanish only when taking breaks or to help aSpanish-speaking customer.
Jurado's supervisor presented her with a piece of paper with the ruletyped across the page and a space for her signature below.
She refused to sign it.
Instead, Jurado quit the job and, at the prompting of a friend, turnedto the National Latino Officers Association of America for help.
Last month, the association -- an advocacy group for Hispanics --filed a complaint with the school district, calling the rule "unlawfuland discriminatory."
"I feel this was an attempt to push the Hispanics out," said JoseMiranda, association spokesman.
Seminole County is the only school district in Central Florida with anEnglish-only policy, though none of the employees who complained wasmade aware of the rule until last fall.
Ned Julian, the district's legal counsel, said the policy was createdmore than 10 years ago to avoid mishaps in the "very dangerous"workplace.
Julian said he often deals with workers' compensation claims foremployees who scald, cut or otherwise injure themselves in thekitchens.
Food-services director Dan Andrews said there haven't been any majorcatastrophes or accidents because of a language barrier, but whenemployees don't all speak the same language, it creates room for errorand hazards.
"The last thing I want is one of my employees or customers, which arestudents, to be hurt or injured," Andrews said.
'The common language'
In past years some workers have questioned the language policy, butafter it was further explained the concerns were quashed, Andrewssaid.
"It's not that English is a better language," Andrews said, "but it'sthe common language."
The district has no similar language policy for other workers inpotentially hazardous situations, such as the school-maintenance crew.The need for a similar rule has not come up, Julian said.
Jurado, 28, and several Spanish-speaking colleagues in the kitchenwere shocked to be told they could speak their language only onbreaks. They spoke English to non-Spanish speakers and to thechildren, teachers and administrators they served in the cafeteria,they said.
It was only among themselves that they spoke in Spanish.
"I didn't feel like I was hurting anybody by talking Spanish," Jurado said.
'Spirit of the law'
The National Council for La Raza in Washington, the largest Hispaniccivil-rights and advocacy organization in the United States, oftenhears of complaints about language policies similar to the one inSeminole County.
"It's very close to violating the law, and at the very least it'sviolating the spirit of the law," said Raul Gonz�lez, a legislativedirector for the council.
Gonz�lez refers to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, whichforbids employers from discriminating against applicants because oftheir native language, birthplace, cultural heritage or accent.
However, the employer can put the rule in place if it is necessary torun a business but cannot mandate any language be spoken during abreak or lunch.
Gonz�lez said the district goes a "step too far" when it asks workersto use their native language to speak with customers but not with oneanother.
Similar complaints in other states have resulted in lawsuits, saidElise Shore, the Southeast legal counsel for the Mexican AmericanLegal Defense and Educational Fund.
Oglethorpe University, a private school in Atlanta, paid a settlementof more than $50,000 last year to three housekeepers who spoke onlySpanish and were told they must learn to speak English.
Matter of principle
Jurado is one of three Seminole kitchen workers who asked the NationalLatino Officers Association to intervene and file a complaint on theirbehalf.
Betty Garcia, kitchen manager at Crystal Lake for six years, quitafter Jurado left rather than enforce the English-only policy.
"I left because they were putting a lot of pressure on me about theSpanish speakers," said Garcia, a native of Puerto Rico.
Julieta Ditchfield worked five years for the district on a temporarybasis through a staffing company and then was told in January that shewas no longer needed. She wonders whether she was let go because ofher recent pregnancy or because she refused to sign the English-onlyrule while working at Wilson Elementary School in Sanford.
Miranda of the Latino Officers Association said the group continues tooppose the language rule and is considering whether to sue the schooldistrict over the policy.
Quitting her job made life more difficult for Jurado, whose husband isnow the only wage earner in the family. The couple have two youngchildren, including a disabled son.
But she said her opposition to the English-only policy was a matter ofprinciple.
"We work for everything we have," Jurado said. "Why should this havecost us our jobs?"
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