For immigrant employers in L.A., EEOC begins training seminars on U.S. anti-discrimination laws

Buoyed by increased funding under the Obama administration, federal officials in Los Angeles are boosting efforts to educate immigrant communities about U.S. laws against racial bias and sexual harassment.

The Los Angeles regional office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has tripled the number of investigators from eight to 24 in the last year, hiring people fluent in Korean, Spanish, Thai, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Portuguese and American Sign Language.

And early this month, the office held its first training seminar for immigrant employers on federal anti-discrimination laws. The English-Korean bilingual seminar, held in Koreatown, drew about two dozen restaurant owners, insurance brokers and other business people.

Koreatown restaurant owner Tu Ik Chang urged his fellow business owners to educate themselves on U.S. laws. Earlier this month, he settled a sexual harassment case from 2005 brought by several female employees against the restaurant’s former manager. Chang — who was out of the country when the harassment occurred but was still liable and paid $170,000 in compensation — agreed to train his staff on anti-discrimination laws and to cooperate with the EEOC in reaching out to other Korean business owners.

“We are only familiar with Korean culture,” Chang told the group. “We’ve never been educated about U.S. culture, especially business culture, racial discrimination or labor relations issues. But when Koreans come to the U.S. and become business owners, they have to become familiar with these laws.”

Immigrants make up nearly half the workforce in Los Angeles County. But many of them are ignorant of U.S. laws that protect people from discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, gender, age and disability. And many immigrants refuse to file complaints because of the perceived stigma, said Anna Park, regional attorney for the commission’s Los Angeles office.

“It’s a chronic problem in the immigrant communities that people aren’t complaining about discrimination, and employers aren’t educating themselves about their obligations under anti-discrimination federal law,” Park said. “It will take a lot of public cases for them to see that this is something they need to pay attention to.”

In February, a Chinese-owned management firm for the San Gabriel Hilton agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a case involving national origin and sexual harassment complaints. The EEOC charged that the firm, Landwin Management, illegally replaced its mostly Latino banquet servers with less-qualified Chinese workers.

The EEOC has also brought successful actions against a Korean-owned janitorial firm, which agreed to pay $150,000 in 2007 to settle allegations of sexual harassment brought by Latina workers at Los Angeles International Airport. Unicom Electric Inc., a Chinese-owned computer firm in City of Industry, paid $350,000 in 2004 to settle discrimination complaints, including those citing use of racial epithets.

In an interview, Chang said he was deeply chagrined by the sexual harassment case. The 60-year-old entrepreneur said he had high hopes when he decided to expand his Chilbo Myunok barbeque and noodle restaurant chain to Los Angeles five years ago. He invested $1 million, created jobs for nearly 40 workers and, he said, felt proud to see patrons lining up — sometimes for more than an hour — for a seat.

He missed the restaurant’s grand opening in April 2005 because of pressing business in Seoul. When he returned to Los Angeles four months later, he said some of his women workers went to him with complaints about the manager. He said they never alleged sexual harassment — only that he had a “bad personality” and was an ineffective manager. Chang said he agreed to fire him.

Later that year, he said, he received an EEOC complaint notice. The women alleged that the manager touched them with a sexual device, made lewd comments about their bodies and forced them to go to after-hours karaoke bars, among other complaints.

Chang said he was stunned by the EEOC notice and befuddled that he was liable for someone else’s behavior. South Korea’s sexual harassment law does not hold owners responsible for the actions of others, he said.

“I never did anything bad to my employees, so why do I have to suffer?” he asked.

In the training seminar, Park and other EEOC attorneys explained such points as what constitutes harassment, who can file complaints and how to defend against them. Park advised the business owners to have effective anti-discrimination policies and procedures in place, promptly address any complaints and take corrective action.

Chang said he wants to help other business owners learn from his experience. But it has shaken his faith in the American Dream. He has put plans to expand his restaurants to other U.S. cities on hold. And he said he is now afraid to make any personal gestures to employees, such as conversing beyond a quick hello, offering them coffee or sitting with them during staff barbeque parties, for fear someone will sue him.

“It’s been very painful,” he said. “I regret opening a business in America and I just want to close it down and go back to Korea.”