Fresno Factory Workers Fight Wrongful Termination Based on English Proficiency

March 18, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, March 18, 1999

FRESNO, CA–Acting on behalf of 14 former and current Latina factory employees, the Language Rights Project today filed a discrimination lawsuit with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Nibco, Inc., an Indiana-based corporation with a manufacturing plant located in Fresno, CA.

The Language Rights Project, a joint effort of the Employment Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, is accusing Nibco of discriminating against its foreign-born employees by requiring them to pass English-only examinations as a condition of keeping their jobs at the plant.

“Although the exams supposedly tested their workplace knowledge, the workers had to take the test in English,” said attorney Donya Fernandez of the Employment Law Center. “As a result, those who failed were terminated even though they had flawless work records. Each of them had worked at the plant at least four years, and some were employed for as long as 18 or 19 years,” she added.

One of the workers who filed charges, Martha Rivera, 38, said the policy “makes no sense at all.”

“I can’t believe Nibco really thinks that there is any justified business reason for this policy,” she said. “There is absolutely no reason why it should suddenly become necessary for us to know English to keep our jobs. I worked at the plant for nine years and did my job well without being proficient in English.”

The workers’ jobs included making components for irrigation systems by manually assembling parts and operating production machines. According to legal papers filed today, the jobs were routinized and repetitive in nature, requiring little communication in any language, let alone in English. Much of the workforce at the Fresno plant had long been comprised of immigrants whose proficiency in English was limited.

In addition to the 14 Spanish-speaking workers who have come forward thus far, many other Latino and Southeast Asian employees were also fired because of their limited English proficiency, according to the attorneys.

“Make no mistake about it, Nibco’s English-only testing policy is discrimination, pure and simple,” said Marielena Hincapi*, an Employment Law Center attorney. “These were skilled and experienced workers who lost their livelihoods just because Nibco wrongly decided that they had to know English to do their jobs.”

The workers were hired under the Fresno plant’s previous ownership, which did not require its employees to be proficient in English. One employee, who had worked at the plant for 19 years before being terminated last September, was later offered her job back because her extensive experience at Nibco made it difficult for the company to replace her, her attorneys said. But none of the other employees have been re-hired.

“I felt humiliated and discriminated against when I was let go after 18 years,” said 44-year-old Alicia Alvarez. “I know I did my job well, and was always loyal to the company. I still haven’t been able to find another job, and I don’t know how I will be able to support my children.”

Another former worker, 58-year-old Margarita Mendoza, said that her income had supported her husband, who is retired, her son who is in college and her granddaughter. “Nibco told us we were being let go because there wasn’t enough work,” she said. “But I know that this isn’t true, because they were hiring English-speaking workers to replace us at the same time.”

“After I worked there for 11 years, it offends me to think that Nibco couldn’t even be honest enough to tell us that they simply didn’t want non-English speakers in their plant,” she added.

The EEOC is the agency charged by Congress with enforcing the federal laws that prohibit discrimination in employment. Because of the emergence of language-based discrimination in the workplace — including “speak-English-only” rules and accent discrimination — the EEOC has made investigating such cases a top priority in its national enforcement program.

“Discrimination because of limited English proficiency or a foreign accent is far too common,” said Ed Chen, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “Employers are only entitled to demand a level of English proficiency that is actually needed to perform job duties. The public should be aware that practices which deny people job opportunities on the basis of limited English proficiency can be just as unlawful and harmful as more overt forms of prejudice against ethnic and racial minorities.”

The Language Rights Project said that Nibco’s policy reflects just one part of the larger picture of discrimination against immigrants in present-day America. Although restrictive language policies can sometimes be more subtle than other types of unfair treatment, anti-immigrant attitudes have typically manifested themselves throughout our history in this way. Precisely for this reason, many Federal courts have stressed the importance of closely scrutinizing language practices such as Nibco’s because they are often a convenient cover for unlawful discrimination against national origin minority workers.

The Language Rights Project works to combat language-based discrimination in the workplace, and ensure equal access to government services. The Language Rights Information Line (1-800-864-1664) offers free legal advice and referrals in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese to individuals who believe they have been subjected to discrimination based on their language or accent.

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