Language Barrier

Colorado Central Station Casino takes a hit over an English-only policy.

For a casino in Colorado to demand that its housekeepers stop speaking Spanish on the job would seem as plausible a management decision as requiring poker dealers to wear mirrored cufflinks.

Even so, the management of Colorado Central Station Casino stands accused of enforcing an illegal "English-only" policy in the workplace of one of Black Hawk's biggest gambling halls. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has slapped Central Station's parent company with a federal lawsuit charging the casino's overseers with violating the Civil Rights Act and "subjecting Hispanic employees to egregious discrimination."

State senator Robert Hernandez says word of the case has spread through Denver's Hispanic community. "I'm hearing a lot about it," he says. "There's a lot of anger out there." Hernandez is threatening to organize a boycott of Central Station. "The casino business in this state is a highly competitive industry. If you think Caesar Chavez was effective with grapes, just watch what we can do with quarters."

Filed March 30, the EEOC lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary and punitive damages for at least six former casino employees. It is the first lawsuit of its kind in Colorado. "This should send a clear message to Colorado employers that EEOC will not tolerate discrimination and harassment of workers because of their national origin," says EEOC Denver Regional Attorney Joe Mitchell.

Attached to the lawsuit is a copy of a July 8, 1998, memo addressed to "All Housekeeping Staff." The memo appears to be signed by Jolee Bitner, Central Station's housekeeping manager. It reads: "It is company policy that English only be spoken in the casino at all times. Disciplinary action will be taken if this problem persists. All employees must acknowledge this by signing your name below."

Beneath the text is a line next to the first name of each of Central Station's twelve housekeeping employees at the time, eight of whom have filed a separate federal lawsuit against their former employer. Their advocate, Denver attorney Kimberlie Ryan, says she will ask a jury to award her clients $300,000 each, "the maximum remedy the law allows in this case for such outrageous behavior."

For now, none of the housekeepers wants to speak about the case -- in any language. "As anxious as they are to tell their story, they believe it is best to wait to tell it to the jury," says Ryan. "They have confidence in the judicial system and are optimistic that their rights will be vindicated once all of the facts are out."

The casino's Las Vegas owners are betting against it.

Anchor Coin Incorporated, which also owns the Colorado Grande casino in Cripple Creek, has thus far refused to settle the case out of court. "We adamantly deny the allegation that there was an English-only policy enforced at the casino...or that any Spanish-speaking employee was harassed because of it," says Anchor Coin attorney Theresa Corrada.

Corrada also claims the EEOC made no good-faith effort to resolve the case before taking Anchor Coin to court. "The EEOC's transparent eagerness to advance its own political agenda is demonstrated by its total failure to attempt any form of conciliation of these claims prior to [filing the class-action lawsuit]."

The agenda to which Corrada is referring is the EEOC's 1996 decision, prompted by a surge of complaints about English-only employment policies, to make the questionable workplace rules a top enforcement priority.

The EEOC's position is that English-only policies enforced by private employers violate the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against employees on the basis of national origin (or, more specifically, "the linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group"). The commission makes exceptions for English-only rules that protect public safety -- rules for air traffic controllers are a good example -- or where an employer can demonstrate a clear business necessity for requiring employees to speak only English.

In other words, according to the EEOC, it is acceptable for an employer to require that a retail clerk speak English with customers. However, the employer violates federal law by requiring that same clerk to speak English with her fellow employees while stocking shelves or eating lunch in the break room.

Since it began tracking English-only discrimination complaints five years ago, the EEOC has documented a steady increase. In 1996 the commission logged 91 complaints about English-only rules. Last year there were 443 such charges, most of them filed by Spanish speakers. That's no wonder: According to last year's U.S. Census, at least seven million immigrants from Mexico moved to the United States between 1990 and 2000.

Most of the former Central Station housekeepers now suing Anchor Coin are either citizens of Mexico or naturalized U.S. citizens who moved here from Mexico. One is Guatemalan.

"As employers face the challenge of a rapidly evolving workforce, they will serve themselves well by creating work environments that are conducive to diversity," says EEOC chairwoman Ida L. Castro. And if employers refuse to so serve themselves, the EEOC is increasingly apt to serve them with class-action lawsuits.

Last September, a Dallas judge awarded $700,000 to thirteen long-distance operators whose employer banned Spanish in the workplace except when on the phone with a Spanish-speaking customer. That same month, the EEOC negotiated a $192,500 settlement for eight workers at a Chicago manufacturing plant where Spanish was outlawed. In April, the EEOC settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of eighteen housekeepers employed by the University of the Incarnate Word, a private university in San Antonio, Texas, who were ordered not to speak Spanish among themselves. The settlement -- $2.44 million -- set a new record for monetary awards in an English-only discrimination case.

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