Seminole County school workers ordered to speak ingles only A complaint is filed with Seminole schools calling rule 'unlawful and discriminatory.' OrlandoSentinel.com Bianca Prieto Sentinel Staff Writer May 1, 2008
When Carolina Jurado moved to the United States from Panama several years ago, she knew English would become a part of her daily life. But she never thought she would be forbidden to speak her native Spanish. Jurado had worked for a year at Crystal Lake Elementary School in Lake Mary before a supervisor ordered her and fellow Hispanics on the cafeteria staff in September to stop speaking their native language on the job. From then on, it would be English-only in the kitchen, based on a Seminole County school-district workplace policy that applied only to kitchen workers.
They could speak Spanish only when taking breaks or to help a Spanish-speaking customer. Jurado's supervisor presented her with a piece of paper with the rule typed across the page and a space for her signature below. She refused to sign it. Instead, Jurado quit the job and, at the prompting of a friend, turned to the National Latino Officers Association of America for help.
Last month, the association -- an advocacy group for Hispanics -- filed a complaint with the school district, calling the rule "unlawful and discriminatory." "I feel this was an attempt to push the Hispanics out," said Jose Miranda, association spokesman. Seminole County is the only school district in Central Florida with an English-only policy, though none of the employees who complained was made aware of the rule until last fall. Ned Julian, the district's legal counsel, said the policy was created more than 10 years ago to avoid mishaps in the "very dangerous" workplace.
Julian said he often deals with workers' compensation claims for employees who scald, cut or otherwise injure themselves in the kitchens. Food-services director Dan Andrews said there haven't been any major catastrophes or accidents because of a language barrier, but when employees don't all speak the same language, it creates room for error and hazards. "The last thing I want is one of my employees or customers, which are students, to be hurt or injured," Andrews said. 'The common language' In past years some workers have questioned the language policy, but after it was further explained the concerns were quashed, Andrews said. "It's not that English is a better language," Andrews said, "but it's the common language." The district has no similar language policy for other workers in potentially hazardous situations, such as the school-maintenance crew.
The need for a similar rule has not come up, Julian said. Jurado, 28, and several Spanish-speaking colleagues in the kitchen were shocked to be told they could speak their language only on breaks. They spoke English to non-Spanish speakers and to the children, teachers and administrators they served in the cafeteria, they said. It was only among themselves that they spoke in Spanish. "I didn't feel like I was hurting anybody by talking Spanish," Jurado said.
'Spirit of the law' The National Council for La Raza in Washington, the largest Hispanic civil-rights and advocacy organization in the United States, often hears of complaints about language policies similar to the one in Seminole County. "It's very close to violating the law, and at the very least it's violating the spirit of the law," said Raul Gonz�lez, a legislative director for the council. Gonzalez refers to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids employers from discriminating against applicants because of their native language, birthplace, cultural heritage or accent. However, the employer can put the rule in place if it is necessary to run a business but cannot mandate any language be spoken during a break or lunch.
Gonzalez said the district goes a "step too far" when it asks workers to use their native language to speak with customers but not with one another. Similar complaints in other states have resulted in lawsuits, said Elise Shore, the Southeast legal counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Oglethorpe University, a private school in Atlanta, paid a settlement of more than $50,000 last year to three housekeepers who spoke only Spanish and were told they must learn to speak English. Matter of principle Jurado is one of three Seminole kitchen workers who asked the National Latino Officers Association to intervene and file a complaint on their behalf. Betty Garcia, kitchen manager at Crystal Lake for six years, quit after Jurado left rather than enforce the English-only policy.
"I left because they were putting a lot of pressure on me about the Spanish speakers," said Garcia, a native of Puerto Rico. Julieta Ditchfield worked five years for the district on a temporary basis through a staffing company and then was told in January that she was no longer needed. She wonders whether she was let go because of her recent pregnancy or because she refused to sign the English-only rule while working at Wilson Elementary School in Sanford.
Miranda of the Latino Officers Association said the group continues to oppose the language rule and is considering whether to sue the school district over the policy. Quitting her job made life more difficult for Jurado, whose husband is now the only wage earner in the family. The couple have two young children, including a disabled son. But she said her opposition to the English-only policy was a matter of principle. "We work for everything we have," Jurado said. "Why should this have cost us our jobs?"