|By Tania Padgett, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 24, 2004 - A government lawsuit alleges that the luxury Melrose Hotel told Hispanic employees they could not speak Spanish on the premises -- not even during break time or to Spanish-speaking guests -- and when they complained about it, the hotel's top manager told them "Adios."
The suit filed yesterday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charged that Barbara Garcia, 42, the Manhattan hotel's general manager, and Juana Velez, 36, the hotel's assistant director of housekeeping, and unspecified other Hispanic employees were subjected to a hostile environment that involved harassment.
The suit says that after complaining, Garcia was fired. Velez resigned, citing illness brought on by the stressful environment at the hotel on East 63rd Street.
A hotel official said the suit has no merit and that the company and managers would be cleared.
Melrose tried to enforce an "English Only" rule that was so stringent that a concierge was reprimanded for speaking Spanish while assisting a Spanish- speaking hotel guest, the suit said. Some employees were ridiculed about their accents and others terminated after they complained, the lawsuit alleged.
At least seven Hispanic managers have been fired or left under duress since 2001, former Hispanic employees told Newsday. Garcia, who rose to general manager after nine years, said the harassment started shortly after Melrose Management bought the Barbizon Hotel on the Upper East Side.
Mark LaHood, vice president of Melrose Management, mimicked Spanish employee accents "and when I told him to stop he would say he was just kidding," Garcia said. She said the last straw came when LaHood failed to investigate discriminatory comments; one manager allegedly said, "I can't wait for all the Hispanic workers to be fired."
After complaining, Garcia received a poor work evaluation and was later let go in 2002, she said. The situation and the sluggish New York City economy has made it difficult for her to find a comparable job, said her personal attorney, Gary Hanna.
Robert Rose, the EEOC trial lawyer handling the case, said he is pursuing back wages for all his clients. LaHood did not return Newsday's phone calls.
Jeffrey Mills, who replaced Garcia as general manager, said, "The allegations are clearly without merit and we are fully prepared to refute these charges in court and anticipate the hotel, its ownership and management personnel will be exonerated."
Workplace complaints nationwide from Hispanics rose to 7,687 this year, up 22.9 percent from 6,250 in 1999, reports the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Just six months ago the EEOC filed suit against Sephora USA, a beauty products retailer, for similar reasons. The case is still pending.
"As more Hispanics enter the work force, we are seeing more harrasment based on ethnicity," said David Grinberg of the EEOC. "Because of different custom and language there could be a lot of miscommunication."
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