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Janitors Claim Language Gap Is Discrimination

By Kelly Cheung on May 18, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A group of Colorado janitors claim discrimination at their workplace has led to unsafe and unfair working conditions.

The 12 custodial workers speak Spanish, but managers at the Auraria Higher Education Center in Denver communicated to the workers only in English. That's led to workplace injuries and unfair changes to their work schedules, resulting in pay decreases, the workers' lawyer told The Denver Post.

The janitors' discrimination complaint, filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleges the lack of communication in their native language amounts to national origin discrimination. Do they have a case?

The Janitors' Claims

The failure to provide instructions in Spanish has created an unsafe work environment, the janitors' lawyer told the Post -- for example, some have been pricked by discarded needles.

The janitors were also asked to sign off on a schedule change last fall, described to them only in English. But because of the language barrier, they didn't realize they were agreeing to a nearly 3% pay cut, their lawyer said.

In response to the janitors' discrimination complaint, a vice president with the Auraria Higher Ed Center -- a campus shared by three local colleges -- said translation services were available through its human resources department. But the janitors' lawyer countered that other nearby schools go much further by printing policies and instructions in different languages.

Language and Discrimination

When it comes to languages in the workplace, recognizing employer discrimination can be tricky.

Discrimination based on an employee's national origin is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For example, it is discriminatory for a business to require English of their employees at all times including rest breaks; a complete ban on a person's native language would seem to have no "legitimate business necessity."

In the janitors' case, it may not seem like purposeful discrimination to hand out documents printed only in English to all employees. But it can potentially be argued that language is so closely tied to national origin that failing to provide proper communication to the Spanish-speaking janitors does have an adverse effect on that particular group.

The janitors and AHEC representatives have already gone through state-sponsored mediation to discuss the janitors' discrimination claims, to no avail, the Post reports. The EEOC will now interview the parties to decide whether the claims have merit.

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