Albertsons grocery stores violated the rights of Latino employees with a policy forbidding workers to speak Spanish around non-Spanish speakers — even when conversing with one another during breaks or helping Spanish-speaking customers, according to a new lawsuit.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Albertsons Cos. on Thursday in federal court. The lawsuit accuses the Idaho-based chain of discriminating against Latino employees at San Diego-area stores, harassing them and subjecting them to a hostile workplace because of their race or country of origin.
"Employers have to be aware of the consequences of certain language policies," Anna Park, an attorney for the commission's district office covering San Diego County, said in a statement Thursday. "Targeting a particular language for censorship is often synonymous with targeting a particular national origin, which is both illegal and highly destructive to workplace morale and productivity."
Albertsons is one of the largest food and drug retailers in the United States, operating stores — including Safeway, Vons and Pavilions — in 35 states and the District of Columbia.
"While we cannot comment on this pending litigation specifically, Albertsons does not require that its employees speak English only," company spokeswoman Jenna Watkinson said in a statement. "Albertsons serves a diverse customer population and encourages employees with foreign language abilities to use those skills to serve its customers."
In or around 2012, Albertsons developed an unwritten "English-only policy," which Albertsons "implemented as essentially a no Spanish policy," the lawsuit alleges.
Christine Park-Gonzalez, deputy director of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Los Angeles district office, said one of the key issues of the lawsuit is that, in an Albertsons training video, two workers are shown speaking Spanish, and the video suggests that it's best if workers refrain from speaking Spanish in front of workers who do not speak the language.
Park-Gonzalez said an upper-level manager at an Albertsons store on Lake Murray Boulevard in San Diego took an aggressive stance regarding the policy, telling workers they couldn't speak Spanish at the store, even on break and even if a customer started talking to them in Spanish.
The lawsuit said non-Latino employees were not similarly harassed or subjected to the no-Spanish policy.
"It became a hostile work environment that impacted the employees of the store where they were disciplined and disciplined publicly in front of others," Park-Gonzalez said.
David Loy, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego, said that he did not know enough about the facts of the lawsuit to comment on it specifically, but that typically, English-only policies must be justified by a business as a necessity, such as for safety reasons.
Loy said it was not obvious to him what business necessity would require employees to speak only English, even on their breaks or when serving Spanish-speaking customers, but the justification may be more clear once the parties have had time to present the facts and circumstances surrounding the policy decision.
One on occasion in October 2012, the manager reprimanded Hispanic workers Guadalupe Zamorano, an employee since 2007, and Hermelinda Stevenson, an employee since 1989, "in front of the store" for speaking Spanish, the lawsuit alleged.
Afterward, Zamorano called "Albertsons' hotline to complain about the manager's conduct and prohibition against speaking Spanish at work," the lawsuit reads.
After she lodged her complaint, "a union representative investigated the complaint, and told Zamorano that she needed to speak English because she was living in the United States. There was no further action taken in regards to the complaint," the lawsuit said.
Staffers at the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135 union office, which represents workers in San Diego County, said they never received a complaint from Albertsons employees regarding an English-only policy.
"The first we heard about it at the union was [Thursday] when it broke in the news," said Mickey Kasparian, the Local 135 union president. He said union staffers then looked through grievances from earlier years and found no such complaint. "We take these matters very seriously, and if it had been reported to us, we would have been immediately on top of this."
Park-Gonzalez, with the employment commission, said that the union was involved in some capacity, but that she couldn't expand further on what that means because of the pending litigation.
In December 2012, Zamorano was again reprimanded — this time because she was speaking Spanish to a Spanish-speaking customer — and told to speak only English at work, the lawsuit says.
The following year, the suit says, Zamorano and Stevenson requested transfers to other stores.
Stevenson asked for the transfer in June 2013 because harassment and other issues at work were making her sick with anxiety and stomach problems, the lawsuit says. It says that in November 2013, Zamorano also asked for a transfer, citing harassment and that the manager refused to submit her request until she removed the statement about harassment.
The lawsuit asks the court to order Albertsons to stop discriminating against employees based on their national origin, to compensate the aggrieved employees for monetary losses and emotional pain according to proof at trial, to award punitive damages and to pay the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's legal costs.
Cook writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Times staff writer Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this report.
4:05 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Christine Park-Gonzalez and Mickey Kasparian.