Calif. Hospital Settles English-Only Harassment Suit

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Sep 19, 2012
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Delano Regional Medical Center (DRMC), a hospital in California’s San Joaquin Valley, will pay $975,000 to settle a lawsuit on behalf of approximately 70 Filipino-American hospital workers who said they faced ongoing harassment based on their national origin and accents.

The lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Equal Employ­ment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), alleged that the hospital workers—mostly nurses—were the targets of harassing comments, undue scrutiny and discipline because of their Filipino accents or their use of Filipino languages like Tagalog or Ilocano.

During a news conference on Sept. 17, 2012, EEOC representatives explained that the hostile work environment began in 2006 when the chief executive officer and hospital management called all Filipino-American staff members to a meeting and threatened them if they failed to comply with the hospital’s English-only language policy.

Following the meeting, supervisors, staff and volunteers allegedly were encouraged to act as vigilantes, the EEOC reported, constantly berating and reprimanding Filipino-American employees.

Non-Filipino staff who routinely spoke languages other than English on the job were not disciplined or harassed.

The DRMC settlement includes a three-year consent decree and monetary relief, as well as a requirement to develop strong protocols for handling harass­ment and discrimination and to adopt a language policy that complies with Title VII.

The hospital further agreed to hire an EEO monitor to assist DRMC with complying with the terms of the agreement, to revise policies and procedures, and to conduct anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all staff with additional training for supervisors.

Health Care Employers Take Note

SHRM reported on a very similar case in 2009, noting at the time that English-only cases were on the rise, and suggested this was partly due to California’s patient bill of rights, which gives patients the right to talk about their care in the language they are most comfortable speaking.

This patient bill of rights was referenced during the news conference, with a reminder to the health care industry to remember that, in California, English is not necessarily the dominant language. This might be true in Delano, in fact, because DRMC’s own 2011 Community Benefits Report indicates that 72 percent of the population it serves is Hispanic and 16 percent is Asian/Pacific Islander.

In a statement released immediately following the event, Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles District Office, noted that the EEOC “continues to see the improper implementation of language policies that contradict the civil rights of employees in the healthcare industry. All employers should take DRMC’s lead and ensure that their language policies do not violate federal law.”

Delayed Action Triggered Suit

Although more than 100 Filipino-American workers signed a petition reporting the discrim­ination and harassment to top-level hospital management at DRMC, the EEOC reported that no investigation or actions were taken to stop the behavior for an extensive period of time.

Thus, the EEOC filed suit against the hospital in August 2010 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California (EEOC v. Central California Foundation for Health d/b/a Delano Regional Medical Center, Case No. 10-CV-01492-LJO-JLT) arguing that the hospital’s conduct violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

On Jan. 18, 2011, APALC partnered with the EEOC, intervening in the EEOC’s lawsuit and bringing forth its own lawsuit on behalf of several more alleged victims.

“DRMC enforced an overly restrictive English-only policy against its Filipino-American employees and created a workplace environment that was hostile towards them,” Laboni Hoq, litigation director for APALC, said in the statement released after the event. “This landmark settlement should send a strong message to employers that it is illegal to target workers based on their national origin and will hopefully encourage more Asian American and immigrant workers to speak out when their rights are violated.”

“We are a hard-working people. We deserve respect,” said plaintiff Wilma Lamug, a licensed vocational nurse who worked at DRMC for more than 10 years, during a news conference held Sept. 17, 2012. With emotion in her voice, she added, “We hope that this case will serve as a model to others. Workers deserve respect as human beings and deserve to be treated fairly.”

“These women are heroines—not because they wanted to be, but because they had to be,” said P. David Lopez, general counsel for the EEOC, during the news conference.

During the news conference, Lopez noted that the EEOC is working with the White House and other agencies to improve the quality of life and opportunities for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders by facilitating increased access to and participation in federal programs where they remain underserved.

Policy Guidance Available

EEOC guidance on English-only rules notes that “an English-only rule must be adopted for nondiscriminatory reasons. An English-only rule would be unlawful if it were adopted with the intent to discriminate on the basis of national origin,” as was allegedly the case at DRMC.

California employers face additional requirements under the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

According to guidance posted online by the Monterey, Calif.-based law firm of Fenton & Keller, “To establish a lawful ‘English-Only’ policy in California, an employer must prove the policy is necessary for both safety and efficiency. This focus on safety makes it nearly impossible for employers to implement ‘English-Only’ policies based on concerns of employee morale or customer preference,” the guidance notes. “Therefore, although a rule requiring employees to speak English to English-speaking customers is permissible, a rule generally prohibiting employees from speaking any other language during work hours is not.”

A sample English-only policy is available to members on the Society for Human Resource Management website. However, employers should seek the guidance of legal counsel before implementing such a policy in their workplace, particularly if they operate in the state of California.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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