National Origin Discrimination Against Spanish-Speakers Results in $450,000 Settlement

A chain of nursing homes will pay up to $450,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that it punished Hispanic employees for speaking Spanish in the workplace. According to an April 16 article in the Los Angeles Times, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit said Skilled Healthcare Group Inc. enforced its English-only rule with Spanish-speakers but not with those who spoke other languages. This created different terms and conditions of employment for employees of Hispanic origin, a form of illegal national origin employment discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act.

The lead plaintiff, Jose Zazueta, was fired after he warned a co-worker in Spanish to be careful on wet floors he had just mopped. Zazueta, a janitor, speaks only Spanish and could not promise a supervisor that he would speak English at work. Other Spanish-speaking employees complained that they were punished or threatened with punishment for speaking Spanish to Spanish-speaking residents of the homes, or for speaking Spanish in the parking lot during breaks. Employees who spoke Tagalog and other languages were not punished. An attorney for the firm denies that it had an English-only rule and said managers encouraged employees to speak any language residents preferred.

Skilled Healthcare Group Inc. reached a settlement with the EEOC that includes a consent decree. Under the terms of the decree, the firm will pay at least $180,000 to 53 current and former employees, provide English classes, conduct annual anti-discrimination training and designate someone to monitor future discrimination complaints.

Unlike employment discrimination based on race, rules about which languages an employee may speak on the job are not always illegal. However, those rules must serve a business purpose, and they must apply equally to all employees. From the description of Skilled Healthcare’s conduct in the article, the alleged English-only rule served neither. If nursing home residents feel most comfortable in Spanish, it only makes sense to allow employees to speak with them in that language. And by allegedly singling out Spanish-speakers above other groups that spoke different languages, the firm raised disturbing questions about its motivations.

The Los Angeles Times reported that complaints about national origin discrimination on the job are on the rise, with EEOC filings up 13% between 2007 and 2008. Complaints about English-only rules were only a small part of the national origin discrimination complaints, but still rose about 60% between 2006 and 2008. At Joseph & Kirschenbaum, we specialize in fighting all types of discrimination and other mistreatment of employees. If you believe you or a loved one may be a victim, please contact us to learn more about how we can help.