Filipino nurses win Tagalog language discrimination settlement in California Hospital

Nurse Wilma Lamug is overcome with emotion as she recounts the discrimination she and other Filipino nurses experienced while working at the Delano Regional Medical Center in Delano, Calif. (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times)

At $975,000, it's believed to be the largest language discrimination settlement in the U.S. healthcare industry. Officials at Delano Regional Medical Center say they did nothing wrong and settled only because it made financial sense

A group of Filipino nurses who claimed they were mocked for their accents and ordered to speak "English only" won a nearly $1-million settlement against a Central California hospital where bosses and co-workers were allegedly urged to eavesdrop on the immigrant workers.

The $975,000 settlement, announced Monday by lawyers from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is believed to be the largest language discrimination settlement in the U.S. healthcare industry, according to the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

Officials at Delano Regional Medical Center insisted they did nothing wrong and settled the lawsuit only because it made financial sense. Under the terms of the settlement, however, the hospital must conduct anti-discrimination training and hire a monitor to track workplace conduct.

The case, filed in 2010, involved 69 immigrants who said they suffered "constant harassment and humiliation when they opened their mouths, or talked with family members on the phone," said Anna Park, a Los Angeles-based attorney for the commission. She said nurses were banned from speaking Tagalog and other dialects in break rooms, hallways and the cafeteria.

"They were always telling us, 'Ssshhh. English only. English only. I felt embarrassed, ashamed," said Elnora Cayme, who worked at the hospital for more than 27 years.

"I was so angry we were being followed by housekeepers and security guards," she said. "I asked the guard why he did that and he said, 'We were told to watch you and report you.'"

During a 2006 mandatory meeting for Filipino staffers, nurses were told they were forbidden from using their native language at "any time in the hospital," said Wilma Lamug, a former 10-year employee.

She said the hospital's former chief executive vowed that "he would install surveillance cameras in nursing stations. Whoever is caught, they were threatened with suspension or termination," Lamug said. "Sometimes, we were speaking English, but due to our accent and diction, they thought we were speaking something else."

Although the hospital, near Bakersfield, employed a mix of bilingual employees speaking Spanish, Hindi, Bengali and other languages, managers targeted only the Filipinos and encouraged supervisors and other staffers to "act as vigilantes."

The language policy created such a hostile work environment that one worker even sprayed air freshener on a Filipino employee's lunch to register her "hatred for Filipino food," Park said.

Hurt, Lamug and others drafted a petition and collected more than 100 signatures, sending it to management to express their shock. Park said it did not change the atmosphere "of intimidation." The lawsuit alleged that the hospital's language policy violated the Civil Rights Act.

Hospital administrators denied wrongdoing, according to a statement released Monday, saying it "made no financial sense for the hospital to continue this lawsuit and further waste valuable assets which could be better spent on the community's healthcare needs."

The nurses' lawsuit was "an attack" on Delano's policy requiring the use of either English or the patient's preferred language while providing patient care.

The hospital "has the same policy with the same goals — protection of patients," said John Szewczyk, Delano's attorney.

The settlement calls for administrators to conduct regular staff training on diversity and to enforce reporting and handling of discrimination complaints. An outside monitor will be hired to review Delano's compliance for three years, said Laboni Hoq, litigation director at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

"We feel we restored our dignity — but there's no closure," said Hilda Ducusin, a staff nurse for 10 years. "The scar is always there."

Los Angeles Times

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