Law on workers’ accents is murky - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Law on workers’ accents is murky

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Posted: Wednesday, March 24, 2004 8:33 am | Updated: 4:59 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

The next time you’re hiring someone, you’d better think twice before turning that person away if he or she has an accent.

That act could get you into legal hot water with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. One Valley employer just found that out — to the tune of a $22,000 penalty as part of a consent decree.

But the law is quirky: It’s illegal to refuse to hire someone solely because his or her English has an accent from, say, Haiti or West Africa. But it’s perfectly OK to discriminate against New Yorkers or Southerners.

The difference? Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It bars discrimination in employment based on race, religion, color, sex or national origin. And that, according to court rulings, means accent. In fact, one EEOC lawyer says it is even illegal to deliberately look for someone who has a desired foreign accent.

EEOC sued Southwest Incentives, a Texas-based marketing firm that had a telemarketing operation in Phoenix that is now closed, alleging that the company had refused to hire Nigerian-raised Akaninyene Etuk as a telemarketer because of his accent.

To prove its case, the agency brought in Rosina Green, a former university professor of linguistics and a published author. After talking with Etuk and reviewing videotapes and audio recordings, she concluded that while he has an "identifiably West African accent," his English is "fully proficient." And that is the crucial point, said Bill Tamayo, who works at EEOC’s San Francisco office and is considered an expert in linguistic discrimination.

Tamayo said courts have ruled accent is tied to national origin. He said once someone makes a basic showing he or she is the victim of employment discrimination based on language, the burden shifts to the employer to show that speaking ability is part of the job and that the accent "materially interfered with job performance."

In this case the record showed Etuk was born in New York City to Nigerian parents, spoke English as his first language and, when his parents returned to Africa, was educated in Englishspeaking schools. It also showed Etuk had worked successfully as a telemarketer before he applied at Southwest Incentives.

David Lopez, the EEOC’s trial attorney, said accent is not an indicator of someone’s ability to do the work necessary.

"One need not look beyond Arnold S chwarzenegger, Henry Kissinger or James Carville to understand that a person’s accent does not determine whether the person will be able to perform a job," he said.

But the curious thing is that Schwarzenegger and Kissinger might have a federal case — but Carville probably would not. Tamayo said that’s because Carville’s Louisiana Cajun accent is not linked to his national origin.

Tamayo cited a case in which a black man with a Southern drawl applying for a job in New England alleged he was not hired because of his accent, an accent he linked to race.

Tamayo said a court threw that out because that particular accent is not confined to someone based on race or national origin — issues that entitle someone to protection from federal law.

Tamayo also said reverse discrimination also is illegal — even if it is designed to create an impression.

For example, he said, just because a car dealer sells Jaguars does not mean it

could insist on hiring only those with proper "King’s English" accents to sell the vehicles.

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