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Latino ex-workers sue Schiff

Published July 14, 2007 1:22 am

Complainants say they were fired for failing to pass an English-fluency exam
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Five women have sued the makers of the popular Fi-Bar and Tiger's Milk energy bars, claiming they were singled out for racist abuse and fired for not speaking English.

The Salt Lake County women, who lost their jobs about three years ago after complaining about discriminatory treatment from their supervisor, had worked at the Schiff Nutrition International plant near Salt Lake City International Airport since the late 1990s, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

The complaint alleged none of the plaintiffs, who ultimately were fired for not passing English proficiency tests, was subject to English-only company rules until they got a new supervisor. They accuse that manager of making discriminatory remarks and placing demands on them that white workers didn't have to endure.

A company official on Friday denied the allegations in the complaint as "unfounded."

Tom Elitharp, Schiff executive vice president for operations, said in an e-mail that his company "is committed to equal employment opportunity and a workplace free from discrimination."

Three plaintiffs have gone through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission process and have gained the right to take the case to court, said their attorney, Jonathan Benson. The other two are expected to complete the administrative route in a few weeks, when the complaint will be amended, he added.

The state does have an English-only statute that allows for workplace rules that require employees to speak English for safety or other necessary reasons. But the statute generally applies to government jobs. And Benson said that because the women had worked for Schiff for several years before their firing without any need for English fluency, the sudden requirement was discriminatory.

Utah also is an at-will employment state, meaning firings don't have to be for cause. That doesn't mean they can be retaliatory, which is what the lawsuit claims, Benson said.

The lawsuit said problems began when the plaintiffs got a new supervisor who ordered them to pass an English proficiency exam as a condition of continued employment. According to the suit, the supervisor openly expressed his disdain for Latino workers through derogatory comments, such as "Spanish people stink," and the work area "smelled like Hispanics."

The lawsuit said Schiff set up after-work English classes for three months prior to the crucial test. The instructor, noticing the women were struggling, arranged for a substitute teacher to tutor them. The tutor said the women had learning disabilities and would not be able to pass the test.

The complaint alleges Schiff did not have a legitimate business necessity that would require English fluency. It also alleges the women - originally from El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala - and other Latino workers were not allowed to sit during their work shifts like white workers.

Elitharp said Schiff offered English classes on company time for several years, and gave employees multiple opportunities to pass the test.

Schiff, formerly known as Weider Nutrition International, opened its 418,000-square-foot Salt Lake manufacturing facility in 1997.





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