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.
Whether that record will stand, and for how long, remains to be seen. Anchor Coin recently reported annual earnings in excess of $500 million.
The standard defense for accused employers in English-only lawsuits brought by the EEOC is to challenge the presumption that sweeping English-only workplace rules are illegal, argue the definition of "clear business necessity," or both. The Central Station case is different in that Anchor Coin's lawyers maintain there was no English-only policy in the first place. They say the company simply requested that employees speak English in certain situations. "It had absolutely nothing to do with communication between friends while they were working, or on breaks, or anything other than official communications," says Corrada. "Most of the time they were free to speak whatever language they wished."
"Employees were requested to speak English in specific, limited instances, but no penalties were threatened or imposed," she adds.
This request for English was prompted by tension among the housekeeping staff in early 1998, Corrada says. Housekeepers who spoke only English complained repeatedly to casino management that Spanish-speaking housekeepers were gossiping about them in Spanish.
On February 4, 1998, Central Station's human resources director, Carolyn Pretzer, called a meeting at which she and engineering chief Doug Ratzlaff informed the housekeeping staff of the policy request to speak English. The precise nature of that request is in dispute.
According to Anchor Coin, the request was limited to communication over the radios and formal job instructions presented in staff meetings by then-housekeeping manager Debra Castillo. "She was conducting the meetings in Spanish, and the English-speaking employees could not understand her," says Corrada. "They were feeling excluded, because Spanish was being spoken almost exclusively on the job."
Instead of issuing instructions in Spanish and then explaining them afterward in English to the few housekeepers who didn't speak Spanish, Castillo was asked to first conduct the meetings in English, then explain her instructions in Spanish to the majority of her staff.
Castillo protested. Six days later, according to her attorney, Castillo was fired and replaced by a white Central Station cocktail waitress with no management experience, instead of one of several Spanish-speaking assistant managers who had worked under Castillo.
Anchor Coin maintains that Castillo was terminated only because her supervisors learned she had covered up a housekeeper's immigration status.
The former housekeeping employees now suing Central Station say the casino also banned Spanish in all parts of the workplace at all times, not just in staff meetings and over the radio.
Their account of the February, 1998, meeting, detailed in the EEOC lawsuit, states that they were told that "English was the official language of the casino and Spanish could no longer be spoken...The English-only policy prohibited speaking Spanish at any time while at work. It was stated that any employee caught speaking Spanish would be reprimanded." In the following months, the housekeepers claim Jolee Bitner, the new housekeeping manager, repeatedly scolded them for speaking Spanish, even while they were on break, saying "English only!" and "English, English, English."
According to the lawsuit, housekeepers who understood only Spanish were forced to duck into janitor's closets with bilingual employees to discuss work assignments, for fear of being overheard speaking the forbidden language.
The strongest evidence against the casino may be the July 8, 1998, memo asking all housekeepers to sign to acknowledge that they were aware of the company policy.
Anchor Coin's attorneys suggest the memo is a fraud. "We're in the middle of our own investigation into what exactly happened in the summer of 1998," says Corrada. "The best we've been able to determine is that something may have been posted on a bulletin board for a couple of hours. And we're not even convinced that was the case. No one we've talked to has ever seen that memo before."
Corrada says there are housekeepers who worked at Central Station in 1998 and still work there who are willing to testify they never saw the memo. "We certainly don't admit there was a policy in place," she says. "And if there was something done, upper management did not know about it."
Former Central Station employees began filing discrimination complaints with the EEOC in December 1998. In September 1999, EEOC district director Francisco Flores informed Anchor Coin that the EEOC had determined the casino's housekeeping staff had been subjected to an illegal English-only policy. His letter concluded: "The Commission now invites the parties to join with it in reaching a just resolution of this matter."
The next month, Anchor Coin attorney Julie Lapin wrote back: "Central Station remains ready and willing to cooperate with the Commission to resolve these issues."
Why the two sides never actually did cooperate is another matter of dispute. Anchor Coin's lawyers say they were sandbagged. Lapin claims her only meaningful contact with the EEOC following her fall 1999 correspondence with Flores was a single phone conversation with EEOC investigator George Allen in December.
"Mr. Allen advised me in what seemed to be a flippant manner that the charging parties...would not settle for less than hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece," she said in a recent affidavit. "At no time did Mr. Allen offer a conciliation proposal on behalf of the EEOC or identify what the EEOC wanted in terms of resolution. He simply told me the charging parties wanted huge sums of money."
EEOC attorney Mitchell responds: "[Anchor Coin] had ample time and opportunity to resolve the matter without going to court. They declined to do so." Asked for proof that the EEOC made a legitimate settlement offer, Mitchell declined to provide it, saying the details of the EEOC's good-faith efforts to resolve the case will be included in court papers he plans to file May 29.
Last month, four days after the EEOC first filed its action, Colorado Central Station Casino general manager Joe Rammos issued a memo to all employees clarifying the casino's language policy: "You are free to speak in whatever language is most comfortable for you, except over the radios, at gaming tables and in official group communications regarding the operations and business of the casino."
Central Station's owners are proud that 20 percent of the casino's workforce is Hispanic, Rammos wrote. "We do not condone any activities which undermine the ability of our employees to do their jobs with pride and integrity."
The memo was printed in English and Spanish. No signatures were required.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.