Nursing Home Settles Language Discrimination Complaint Brought by Health Care Workers

June 15, 1999 12:00 am

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Tuesday, June 15, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO–Civil rights lawyers announced today that Vencor, Inc., a nationwide nursing home corporation, will pay $52,500 to settle a language discrimination suit filed against them in U.S. District Court by Spanish-, Tagalog- and Haitian Creole-speaking employees and SEIU Local 250.

The case arose after the employees charged in a 1995 complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the Fifth Avenue Health Care Center in San Rafael violated their rights by harassing and disciplining them for speaking in languages other than English.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the agency charged by Congress with enforcing the federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, and national origin. The Commission found reasonable cause to believe that the nursing home discriminated against the employees on the basis of their national origin by implementing and enforcing the “speak-English-only” policy.

The workers in the case were represented by the Commission and by The Language Rights Project, a joint project of the Employment Law Center and the ACLU of Northern California.

“The nursing home’s English-only policy was unlawful discrimination that humiliated employees,” said Marielena Hincapie, an Employment Law Center attorney who represented the employees. “There was no reason for such extreme restrictions on employees’ use of their primary languages when not providing care to a resident. These illegal restrictions only served to hinder care to residents and destroy employee morale.”

Maria Martinez, the named plaintiff, has been working as a certified nursing assistant at Fifth Avenue since 1990. Her primary language is Spanish, but she is able to speak enough English to perform her job. She was reprimanded numerous times for speaking Spanish.

“I felt very humiliated by the constant warnings about speaking Spanish and the English-only rule,” said Martinez. “The way the supervisor acted made me feel like less of a person just because I speak another language. It all felt like another excuse to crush us Latinos.”

Another plaintiff, Graciela Vega, had worked at Fifth Avenue as a certified nursing assistant since 1994. On one occasion, the staff’s in-service trainer reprimanded her for speaking Spanish with another employee outside of the residents’ dining room. “I was told that this was America and that if I was unable to speak English, this was neither the place nor job for me,” said Vega.

Maria Griffith-Canas, a union representative called the settlement “a tremendous victory for SEIU Local 250 and all of our members who are constantly fighting these xenophobic English-only rules in health care facilities such as Fifth Avenue.”

“The significance of this settlement goes beyond Fifth Avenue and will serve as a model to assist all of our limited English-speaking workers in this struggle,” she added.

According to Christopher Ho, Senior Staff Attorney at the Employment Law Center and Co-Director of the Language Rights Project, the policy was implemented more harshly against monolingual non-English speakers and those with limited English proficiency — namely, those who could not as easily protest the rule or discipline administered.

“This arbitrary pattern of enforcement intimidated and humiliated those employees, particularly those who speak no English and speak it only with difficulty,” Ho said.

At the time the employees filed their complaint, Hillhaven Corporation owned the Fifth Avenue Health Care Center. In 1995, Vencor purchased the facility. It was during Vencor’s ownership that the English-only policy was rigorously enforced. In 1997, Lenox Healthcare, Inc., which was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, purchased Fifth Avenue from Vencor.

Under the terms of the settlement, Lenox Healthcare will revise the policy to conform to California Department of Health Services standards for languages spoken by nursing home staff.

In an “all-facilities” letter to skilled nursing and intermediate care facilities statewide, the health agency set out its position that federal nursing home regulations do not authorize the use of English-only rules, except in very narrowly defined situations. In fact, the DHS policy suggested that those regulations may actually require employees to speak languages other than English when interacting with non-English speaking residents.

“Each resident has the right to be fully informed of his or her total health status, including his or her medical condition, in a language that he or she understands,” the letter said. “At the same time, all employees have the right to communicate with each other in their primary language when not engaged in direct communication with, or providing care to a resident, while being aware that they should not engage in conversation of a social nature that doesn’t relate to the care of the resident.”

The settlement decision follows two other recently settled language discrimination complaints. In June 1999, Miranda Chow, a Chinese-American, won a $55,000 settlement in an accent discrimination complaint that she filed with the EEOC. In May 1999, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights announced a settlement with the Contra Costa Department of Social Services that ensured that all county services and programs are accessible to persons who have limited English proficiency.

The Language Rights Project works to combat language-based discrimination in the workplace, and to 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.

The case is Martinez et al. v. Lenox Health Care and Vencor, Inc. Attorneys Marielena Hincapie and Christopher Ho of the Employment Law Center and Ed Chen of the ACLU of Northern California represented the workers. The settlement was approved by U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker.

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