A federal agency filed a lawsuit against the Sheraton National Hotel in Arlington yesterday, claiming the hotel discriminated against a former dishwasher by failing to rehire him because he does not speak fluent English.

The case is at least the third in the past two years in which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has intervened on behalf of Spanish-speaking workers over English fluency policies.

It settled a similar national-origin-discrimination lawsuit last year with Colorado Central Station Casino Inc. for $1.5 million. Hispanic employees in its housekeeping department were subjected to a blanket English-only rule. And the EEOC joined an employment-discrimination lawsuit against Houston companies Quietflex Manufacturing Co. and Goodman Manufacturing Co. two years ago. The class-action suit, which is pending, alleged the companies imposed unnecessary English fluency requirements to prevent Hispanic workers from being hired or transferred into better-paying jobs.

According to EEOC policy, a fluency requirement is permissible in workplaces only if needed "for the effective performance of the position for which it is imposed."

"There are some companies that do have an English policy, but they [must] take into account, is it absolutely necessary," said Javier Lozano, regional director of the Pacific West division of the Society for Human Resource Management. "There is probably some more awareness of it because there is a higher population of non-English-speaking immigrants in the workforce now."

Yesterday's suit involved Jesus Romero, who was temporarily laid off in September 2001 while the hotel remodeled its restaurant. Employees were advised they would be rehired less than a year later, the suit said. However, Romero, who worked for the hotel for 16 years, was denied the job because of a newly implemented English fluency requirement, the commission said.

"Because the investigation is still open, we are not able to discuss it," said Paul Giovanini, general manager of the hotel. He said the hotel does not now have an English fluency rule. "We are definitely cooperating with the EEOC to find out more of the facts with the case."

"Where an employee has performed the job successfully for many years, and when it's a job that doesn't require English, it's hard to justify," said Denise L. Gilman, Romero's attorney and director of the Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project for the Washington Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Romero received an employee of the month award in 1999.

Romero's position as a dishwasher "did not require a lot of public interaction," said Stacey Caldwell, a senior trial attorney with the EEOC who is working on the national-origin-discrimination suit. "We feel it is especially egregious and don't believe it constitutes a business necessity." The suit seeks back pay and reinstatement, as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

Charges filed with the EEOC by Hispanic employees nationwide are up 23 percent since 1999.