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Fil-Am Workers in CA Win Discrimination Settlement

Posted: Sep 21, 2012

LOS ANGELES – The Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), a member of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced on September 17 a landmark settlement of $975,000 against Delano Regional Medical Center (DRMC), a hospital in California’s Central Valley.

The case was brought forward, on behalf of almost 70 Filipino-American employees who fell victim to discrimination and harassment when hospital administration singled the ethnic group out for enforcement of its English-only policy.

Roots of harassment

In a statement to the Asian Journal, APALC Staff Attorney Carmina Ocampo explained that in 2006, Fil-Am hospital employees alleged that they were harassed and singled out and treated differently from other workers with different ethnicity.

They claimed that the harassment incidents all began when CEO of the hospital called for a mandatory meeting for only Fil-Am staff. During the meeting, the management of the hospital instructed the said employees to speak only in English, allegedly threatening them with suspension or termination for violating the policy.

Ocampo went on to explain that the CEO even went as far as to “threaten with monitoring using surveillance equipment.” And despite the diversity of the hospital’s workforce (with others speaking other languages like Spanish and Hindi) not other ethnic group was told to join this meeting, nor was the language policy enforced upon any other ethnic group.

EEOC General Counsel P. David Lopez, in a statement, said: “Employees should never be targeted because of their national origin or language. The EEOC stands ready to assist employees nationwide who believe they have suffered workplace discrimination, and to ensure that our work force reflects the rich diversity of our nation.”

In a report from the Associated Press (AP), the medical center defended its English-only policy as essential to patient care. In a written statement, officials said the hospital did nothing wrong, said AP.

An e-mail to the Delano Regional Medical Center from Asian Journal was not returned, as of press time.

A harsh workplace dynamic

The meeting resulted in a changed social dynamic within the hospital wherein Filipinos were mocked, harassed, and taunted. In their lawsuit against the DRMC, the Fil-Am employees claimed that the “discriminatory” enforcement of the policy created a hostile work environment for Filipino workers, who were monitored and reprimanded by their colleagues in the hospital. They were often told to speak in English, were ridiculed for their accents, and were humiliated in front of fellow hospital employees.

Under the language policy, Fil-Am employees of DRMC were required to communicate in English at all times at the workplace, even in break rooms, nurses’ stations, and hallways. Even during times when Filipinos were speaking in English, DRMC staff would still remind them to speak in English, especially if they were with other Filipinos.

For months, according to Ocampo, Filipinos were constant targets of reprimands and ridicule, with DRMC staff giving them reproach even without any violation of the English-only rule. One Filipino nurse even claimed that a co-worker sprayed air freshener on her food because the said co-worker apparently did not like the smell of Filipino food.

Another example of harassment is when Fil-Ams were reminded to speak in English even when they were just greeting their fellow co-workers in Tagalog, using the word “Manang” or “Manong,” terms that connote respect in Filipino culture. The Pinoys were constantly reminded to speak in English, even in the cafeterias when they were just having lunch.

Allegedly, the DRMC did not make adequate measures to prevent the harassment that the Filipinos experienced during this time. Even after over a hundred Filipino employees, including Filipino doctors, made formal a complaint about this discrimination, DRMC management still failed to make a significant response on the matter.

According to Ocampo, DRMC did not target the non-Filipino population of the medical center with their strict enforcement of the language policy. The overly harsh and restrictive measure seemed to apply only to the Filipinos.

“We believe DRMC enforced an overly restrictive English only policy against its Filipino American employees and created a workplace environment that was hostile toward them,” said Laboni Hoq, APALC Director for Litigation.

“This settlement will 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, like our brave clients did,” Hoq added.

A harrowing experience

Wilma Lamug, one of the victims of this discrimination, claimed that she felt even more harassed after the first meeting held with the DRMC management.

“I felt more harassed because we Filipinos received constantly harassing words like ‘Shhh, speak English!,’” Lamug confessed.

Another victim, Elnora Cayme, said that during the time of the harassment, at least once or twice a day, a supervisor or co-worker would call her out even at the hallways and break rooms, and say “English only!” According to Cayme, even the housekeeping supervisors and security guards were in on the harassment bit. When she asked a security guard why they were acting in such a way, the guard simply explained that their respective supervisors instructed them to “watch you guys and make sure that you were all speaking English.”

Like most of the Pinoys in the medical center, Lamug was scared for her source of livelihood, as the job she had with the DRMC was her “bread and butter.” And she felt like they “were in trouble.”

Cayme pointed out that DRMC’s actions created tensions among the employees “that weren’t there before.”

“I felt sad, undervalued, and humiliated,” Cayme added.

A huge victory indeed

According to Ocampo, this is the largest settlement for a workplace language discrimination case in the West Coast, and the largest settlement for a workplace language discrimination case in the health care industry in the US. Also, Ocampo added that it is the largest language rights settlement ever secured by the APALC.

“This landmark settlement is a victory for the Asian American and Filipino American communities,” Ocampo said.

“People don’t normally think of Asian Americans when they think of victims of workplace discrimination and harassment,” Ocampo explained.

She went on to elaborate that there are few reports from Asian Americans of cases of harassment, not because they are not victims of this on a more often basis, but rather because they are afraid of the retaliation and backlash that may ensue after such complaints are made. Ocampo also claims that there is a prevailing stereotype that Asian Americans don’t like to complain about violations against them.

“This landmark settlement won by almost 70 Filipino American workers is a powerful example of Asian Americans standing up for their rights and fighting back against discrimination,” Ocampo added.

Aside from the monetary relief, the settlement mandates upon the DRMC a three-year Consent Decree. Under the decree, hospital management is prohibited from engaging in the kind of alleged discrimination and harassment that gave rise to the lawsuit. It also institutes a new Language Policy that “acknowledges the value of the hospital’s diverse work force and allows employees the dignity to speak the language of their choice in appropriate circumstances.”

Furthermore, the Consent Decree will also require the DRMC to hire a third-party Equal Employment Opportunity monitor to “ensure compliance with its terms,” as well as “train all staff to comply with equal employment laws and the new Language Policy.”

(LA Midweek September 19-21, 2012 Sec A pg. 1)


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