Casino Workers Win Language Discrimination Suit

7/21/2003 (Michael Riley, Denver Post Staff Writer) After being forced by an employer’s mandate to be mute on the job, Maria Fernandez can finally talk.

It is an opportunity she is not going to miss.

“When they told me not to speak Spanish, it was like telling a person who wears glasses that she can’t anymore. It’s who I am,” Fernandez said after Friday’s $1.5 million settlement of a lawsuit that challenged the English-only policy by one of Colorado’s premier casinos. Thirty-six workers will share the settlement.

Colorado Central Station casino in Black Hawk imposed the policy five years ago even though managers there knew many applicants spoke only Spanish when they were hired, workers said.

“They didn’t ask if we spoke English. All they ask was if we could clean,” Fernandez said.

The hefty settlement is meant to slow a growing number of restrictive English-only policies at businesses in Colorado, a federal official said.

“We expect employers to take a long, hard look before implementing policies that discriminate against an employee who speaks a language other than English,” said Francisco Flores, district director for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

But similar policies are in effect elsewhere, said one former housekeeping manager.

Sharon Chavez, who now works at another Front Range gaming house, said managers at her new job forbid workers from speaking Spanish as they clean the cage of a parrot that sits prominently on the casino floor.

“They say they don’t want the parrot to start speaking Spanish” around customers, Chavez said.

After a federal judge approved the settlement Friday, workers described what they said were humiliating conditions at Central Station after the English-only requirement was imposed on the mostly Hispanic cleaning staff.

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