Eight janitors at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda sat in a circle during their lunch break last week and practiced English by slowly reading aloud a list of supermarket items. A teacher then asked the group to try using the words in sentences.
"Where can I find lobster?" asked Graciela Ruiz, 43, a Salvadoran immigrant who has been cleaning rooms at the hospital for eight years. "In the seafood section," replied her co-worker, Cecelia Umana.
Then Jose Barahona, the owner of the cleaning company that employs them both and is paying for the English lessons, called out from the back of the room: "Pero es muy caro!" (But it's very expensive!) And the class erupted in laughter.
A small but growing number of companies in the Washington area have begun offering free English classes to their workers. It is a new type of benefit that reflects both the region's tight labor market and its increasingly international work force.
The companies say the English classes help them recruit and keep good employees while also imparting language skills that many of their workers need to communicate with managers and customers--and to advance into supervisory positions.
"If a nurse asks one of my employees to do something and she doesn't understand, it's a problem for the company and for the hospital," said Barahona, who owns Able Service Contractors. "So this is great for the company. And it's wonderful for my employees, too."
Immigrant workers, many of whom work two or three jobs, say they like the in-house English classes because they are easier to fit into their schedules than courses offered elsewhere. In addition, there are long waiting lists in several Washington area jurisdictions for government-sponsored and other English courses that charge fees.
"It's very nice, and convenient," said Adelina Zelayas, 53, a member of the hospital housekeeping staff who immigrated to the region eight years ago from El Salvador. "It's good for work, but it's also good for my life."
The Fairview Park Marriott in Falls Church, whose workers are from nearly 50 countries, offers English courses at the end of the morning shift and keeps employees on the clock while they're in class.
"We're paying them to take these classes because it's so important to us," said Eduardo Sanabia, the hotel's human resources director. "We have a huge diversity in our workplace, and we celebrate that every day. But we need a common language to succeed--English--and we encourage our associates to learn it."
Cristobal Rivas, 33, a Salvadoran housekeeping aide who has worked at the hotel for nearly a decade, said he used to look for a colleague to translate when a guest asked him for towels or a bathrobe or even asked, "How are you?" Now, after taking English classes at the hotel last year, he says he understands "everything about housekeeping."
Berta Garrido, 50, who left Guatemala nine years ago, recalled similar experiences with customers at the Hilton in McLean, including one episode in which she started cleaning a guest's bathroom after he told her he wanted to take a shower.
"It was so embarrassing!" she said. Now, after three years in the Hilton's English classes, she says: "If someone asks me where is the ice machine, or if someone wants a room cleaned, or if there's some other problem, I understand."
If English classes come with an accent on customer service in the hotel industry, local construction firms are experimenting with English classes to improve safety and productivity on job sites.
"Obviously, if all my employees speak English, there's less down time looking for translators to explain what needs to be done," said Patrick Dean, executive director of the Virginia chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors. "You can get a lot done just pointing and drawing pictures, but the industry is becoming more sophisticated every day, and we're in need of English speakers."
As a result, construction firms in Northern Virginia have paid the association to teach English to more than 160 workers in the last three years, Dean said. Those who graduate are quickly promoted to crew leaders and foremen.
In Fairfax County, Centex Construction Co. not only pays for the English classes but also offers a bonus of a $100 gift certificate at the company store to employees who sign up and complete the course.
"Attracting and retaining good employees is challenging in any market, and in this market it's especially challenging," said Steve Smithgall, Centex senior vice president.
"I don't know how many companies are [offering English classes], but the smart ones are," he said.
Companies usually organize classes for workers based on on how much English they know. Most of the classes focus on practical language skills for everyday life as well as work.
For example, Hortensia Umana, who teaches the classes at the National Naval Medical Center, distributed a handout last week with useful sentences for the hospital janitors to memorize, including, "Could you do this bed now?" and "I can do it in about 10 minutes."
But she also teaches her students how to fill out applications for apartments and how to write checks, because many of them waste hours each month paying their bills in cash.
One of her best students, Margarita Velasco, 58, said she tries to study English during the 1 1/2-hour, three-bus commute between the medical center and her home in Prince George's County. At work, she sometimes practices with the facility's commander, Rear Adm. Bonnie Potter.
"I only know a few words so far," she said, "but I can communicate."