The Albertsons manager interrupted the conversation between Guadelupe Zamorano and Hermelinda Stevenson to chastise them for the rule they were publicly flouting, right in front of the grocery store.
They were speaking Spanish.
For months, according to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit filed on behalf of the two women and other minority employees, the San Diego store had an unwritten rule that applied exclusively to the Hispanics who worked there: They could not speak Spanish anywhere on the premises, even if they were on break.
Supervisors “verbally harassed” Hispanic employees, the complaint says, publicly reprimanding them and threatening to discipline them for violations of the “No Spanish” policy.
Zamorano, Stevenson and other Hispanic employees are named in the court action filed Thursday against the grocery store chain. The suit involves incidents that happened in 2012 and 2013, when Hispanic employees say they were “subjected to disparate treatment and a hostile work environment because of their national origin.”
Managers repeatedly told them they could not speak Spanish, but gave no such admonishments to people in Albertsons uniforms who were not Hispanic.
Albertsons did not make a company official — or Richard Brown, the store director mentioned in the complaint — available for comment. Jenna Watkinson, a spokeswoman for Albertsons Cos., told The Washington Post in an email, “The company does not have, and has never had a policy in which such language usage is prohibited.”
“While we cannot comment on this pending litigation specifically, Albertsons does not require that its employees speak English only,” a statement from the chain said. “Albertsons serves a diverse customer population and encourages employees with foreign language abilities to use those skills to serve its customers.”
Albertsons Cos., based in Boise, Idaho, is one of the nation’s largest food and drug retailers, with 280,000 employees in 35 states. Stores operate under 19 banners, including Vons, Safeway, Amigos and Pavilions.
The complaint stems from a training video that Albertsons developed in 2012 in which “managers and employees were instructed that employees should not speak Spanish as long as there was a non-Spanish speaking person present.”
After that training, Brown, who was director of a store on Lake Murray Boulevard in San Diego, told “Hispanic employees that they could not speak Spanish anywhere on the premises regardless of whether they were on break.”
Violators were threatened with discipline, court documents say, and routinely received public reprimands like the one Zamorano and Stevenson say they got on that fall day in 2012. Zamorano said she was once chastised for conversing in Spanish with a Spanish-speaking customer.
Zamorano had worked at Albertsons for five years and Stevenson had worked there for 23 years when the policy was implemented, their complaint says.
After the dressing down, Zamorano called the company’s hotline to complain about Brown’s conduct and the ban on Spanish.
According to the court papers, an employee union representative investigated the complaint and “told Zamorano that she needed to speak English because she was living in the United States.”
After another dressing down a month later, Zamorano requested a transfer to a different store, citing the “No Spanish” police.
Brown refused to submit her request, the court documents say, “until she filled out a form that did not include the statement about harassment.”
Stevenson also requested a transfer to a different store. In the complaint, she claimed the “harassment and monitoring from management” was making her anxious and physically sick.
To feel comfortable, she and other employees would leave the store’s premises to have lunch.
“Employers have to be aware of the consequences of certain language policies,” said Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles District Office, which covers San Diego County. “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.”
Thursday was not the first time the EEOC had targeted Albertsons for alleged discrimination.
In 2009, Albertsons agreed to pay $8.9 million to settle three employment discrimination lawsuits filed by the agency on behalf of 168 former and current employees.
Those suits said minority employees at a Colorado distribution facility were given harder work assignments and were disciplined more severely than their white counterparts for similar infractions. Dozens of employees complained to management about the discrimination, and the complainers were passed over for promotions and even fired in retaliation, the EEOC said.
Minority employees were frequently subjected to negative, racially tinged comments, including the use of slurs for blacks and Hispanics — harassment that even extended to the bathroom.
The stalls of the distribution facility were covered in “racial and ethnic slurs, depictions of lynchings, swastikas, and white supremacist and anti-immigrant statements,” the EEOC said. The graffiti wasn’t cleaned up for years, until the restroom was remodeled, the commission said.
“The graffiti in a commonly used men’s room was so offensive,” the EEOC said, “that several employees would relieve themselves outside the building or go home at lunchtime rather than use the restroom.”