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Suits alleging cultural bias

Page restaurant won't let Navajos use their own language while
on the job

By Howard Fischer

PHOENIX - A Page restaurant is facing a federal court lawsuit over its refusal to
let its Navajo employees speak their own language on the job.

Legal papers filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge that
the owners of RD's Drive-In fired two workers because they refused to sign a
company policy that they speak only English while on the job. Two others then quit
after the policy was enacted two years ago because, they said, they could not live
with its terms.

This is the first lawsuit the EEOC has filed anywhere in the country seeking to
preserve the rights of American Indians to speak their own languages on the job,
said Mary Jo O'Neill, the EEOC's acting regional director.

"It is amazing that, in a country that cherishes diversity, an employer will prohibit the
use of indigenous languages in the workplace and terminate Native American
employees who question whether that is lawful," she said. "In fact, in 1990 Congress
enacted a statute specifically designed to protect and preserve native languages."

But Steve Kidman, who owns the restaurant with his father, said federal regulations
permit English-only requirements when necessary for the functioning of the
business. He said that is the case here.

It will be up to a federal judge to sort out who is right.

Kidman said he imposed the rule in June 2000 after getting complaints from several
employees that Navajo-speaking workers were insulting them. He said the workers
could hear their names being spoken but were unable to understand exactly what
was being said about them.

That, Kidman said, undermined crew morale. He said it would be like letting two
workers whisper about a third.

"If your two co-workers were in the corner, looking at you and whispering and
giggling, it had that same kind of effect on our crew," he said. "And we were having
a hard time maintaining enough workers because they would simply quit because
they didn't want to work in that environment."

EEOC attorney David Lopez denies that Navajo-speaking workers were using
derogatory terms about other employees. But Kidman produced a sworn affidavit
from a current worker, a Navajo, who said other employees were "saying rude and
sarcastic remarks about me in Navajo."

Attorney David Selden, who represents the diner, said "the only real effective way
the business could see to solve the problem was prohibiting people from speaking
Navajo" while on the job. Selden also disputed the EEOC's contention that the policy
applied to workers while on break.

Selden also said the policy did not preclude employees from communicating with
each other, as all were fluent in English. He said workers were permitted to use
Navajo with customers as necessary.

The lawsuit seeks both back pay and lost future pay, as well as an injunction
prohibiting the restaurant owners from discriminatory practices in the future.

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