Navajo lawsuit targets English-only work rule

Feds back tribe in 'historic' act

Judy Nichols
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 1, 2002 11:16 AM

A small, family-owned burger grill in Page, a border town to the Navajo Nation, has
become the first business to be sued by the federal government for not allowing
Native Americans to speak their own language at work.

The suit, announced Monday, is the first time the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission has filed an English-only lawsuit based on a Native American language
rather than Spanish, said Mary Jo O'Neill, acting regional attorney for the agency's
Phoenix office.

"It's historic," O'Neill said. "Obviously, Navajo was spoken in this area before English

Meanwhile, two Phoenix employers also are being sued by the EEOC for refusing to
allow a Muslim worker to cover her head and for denying another worker time to

On one side of the language suit are four Native American women who say the
"English-only" work rule evoked memories of government efforts to eradicate their
language. On the other is a mom-and-pop restaurant, which claims it used the
EEOC's own guidelines to establish a conflict-free workplace.

The center of the storm is RD's Drive-In, where most of the employees and many of
the customers are Navajo. Steve Kidman said the drive-in was started by his father,
Richard, 25 years ago. The two run it together now.

According to Kidman, some of the employees who spoke Navajo were talking about
other employees in Navajo, making them so uncomfortable that they were
threatening to quit. And, he said, customers told him they could hear employees
swearing in Navajo in the kitchen.

So he and his dad got on the EEOC Web site in June 2000 and looked at the
guidelines for an "English-only" workplace, wrote their policy, posted it and asked all
his employees to sign it.

According to the EEOC, it said: "The owner of this business can speak and
understand only English. While the owner is paying you as an employee, you are
required to use English at all times. The only exception is when the customer cannot
understand English. If you feel unable to comply with this requirement, you may find
another job."

David Lopez, the EEOC's trial attorney on the case, said the policy didn't allow
employees to speak Navajo even on their own time, during breaks or at lunchtime.
And that those who didn't sign the policy were terminated. That makes the policy
illegal, Lopez said.

Elva Josley, formerly Begay, one of the employees who spoke Navajo, said she got
scared and told Kidman she wouldn't sign the policy. He told her to clock out and go
home, she said.

"I thought it was unfair," Josley said. "Our whole crew was Navajo. And some
things are better said in Navajo . . . they make more sense."

She said she never heard any employee say anything derogatory or vulgar in

Kidman says he didn't fire anyone, that they quit. And, he says, when the EEOC told
him his policy was discriminatory, he sent them certified letters saying they could
have their jobs back. No one came back.

"It's a complicated legal issue, one that courts have differed over," said David
Selden, the Kidmans' attorney. "Even federal judges with all of their resources, skills
and training, disagree. And they are expecting a small mom-and-pop drive-in up in
Page to figure out this complicated and evolving area of the law. And you do so at
the peril of the EEOC suing you."

In the religious discrimination suits, the EEOC filed two separate lawsuits against
Cannon & Wendt Electric Co. and Alamo Rent A Car for religious discrimination.

The EEOC says in one that Alamo allowed Bilan Nur, then 20, to cover her head
during observance of the monthlong Ramadan in 1999 and 2000. But a year later,
after the attack on the World Trade Center, she was fired for violating company
dress codes, the suit says. When Nur, a customer service representative, was
dismissed, she was wearing a regulation Alamo head scarf, the suit says.

Alan Katz, an Alamo spokesman in New York, said the company does not comment
on pending litigation.

In the second suit, against Cannon & Wendt, the EEOC alleges the company had
accommodated Larry Walker's religion when he worked as a union apprentice
electrician in 1999 and 2000. But in April 2001, the company refused to hire him to
work at a site in Phoenix after he reminded them that he needed time to observe his

Walker, 28, asked for 15 minutes each day to pray and 45 minutes during his lunch
hour each Friday to attend a Jumah, a congregation of prayer at his mosque. Walker
requested unpaid leave and said he would make up lost time during overtime hours.

Cannon & Wendt refused to hire him because it would have to honor similar
requests from others, the suit says.

Cannon & Wendt officials did not return calls for comment on Friday or Monday.

Republic reporter Carol Sowers contributed to this article.

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