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Felix Adamo/ The Bakersfield Californian

With U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission trial lawyer Rumduol Vuong, (left) at her side, former Delano Regional Medical Center nurse Priscilla Penalosa, right, talks about the harassment she and other Filipino-American employees had to endure while on the job at the hospital. The Delano Regional Medical Center will pay $975,000 to settle the lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

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Felix Adamo/ The Bakersfield Californian

Melissa Barrios, left, director with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, reads a statement regarding $975,000 Delano Regional Medical Center will pay to settle a lawsuit involving the harassment of approximately 70 Filipino-American employees at the hospital. Also seated at the news conference are EEOC trial lawyer Rumduol Vuong, second form left, former Delano Regional Medical Center nurse Priscilla Penalosa, and attorney Justin Ma.

Delano Regional Medical Center will pay $975,000 in a settlement regarding harassment and discrimination of Filipino workers at the hospital for allegedly imposing a language requirement that Filipinos felt targeted them, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission announced Monday.

In addition, the EEOC said the hospital agreed to develop strong protocols for handling harassment and discrimination, to hire an EEOC monitor to assist the hospital to comply with the terms of the settlement, to revise policies and procedures, and to conduct anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all staff, with additional training for supervisors.

It's the first case of its kind in the Central Valley, said Melissa Barrios, Fresno Local Director of the EEOC. She said the EEOC finds cases like this tend to occur in hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities.

She said employers should ensure their policies comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and examine the scope and effect of their policies.

In a written statement, Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC's Los Angeles District Office, said, "The EEOC continues to see the improper implementation of language policies that contradict the civil rights of employees in the health care industry. All employers should take DRMC's lead and ensure that their language policies do not violate federal law."

The EEOC filed suit against Delano Regional in August 2010 arguing that the hospital's conduct violated the civil rights of Filipino workers, Barrios said. Filipino-American employees of DRMC were told by hospital management during a 2006 meeting to speak English at all times while at the hospital, and anyone speaking Filipino languages would be penalized up to and including termination. The EEOC alleged the workers were subjected to discrimination based on their national origin.

Only Filipino-American staff were targeted, Barrios said. Non-Filipino staff who spoke languages other than English -- such as Spanish -- on the job were not disciplined or harassed.

"It is our hope workers and employers alike will learn from this example," Barrios said of the settlement.

DRMC released a statement saying the hospital contends it did nothing wrong, and that it's primary concern was bringing the matter to a "fair and economically reasonable" resolution.

"The litigation was an attack on DRMC's policy requiring the use of either English or the patient's preferred language while providing patient care," the news release said. "That policy remains in place despite this litigation.

"The policy is designed solely to protect patients and ensure that they receive the best care possible and DRMC remains dedicated to that goal."

That policy, however, has been tweaked, said Laboni A. Hoq, litigation director for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

The old policy required hospital employees to speak English while "on duty," and the new policy allows employees to speak the language of their choosing unless they are "engaged in direct communication with, or while providing care or services to, a patient."

Plaintiffs alleged DRMC's old policy resulted in ongoing harassment and discrimination. Supervisors, staff and employee volunteers were allegedly encouraged to act as vigilantes, constantly berating and reprimanding Filipino-American employees for nearly six years, Barrios said.

Some Filipino-American employees were told they'd be arrested if they didn't speak English, and the employees were told to go back to the Philippines, Barrios said. In one incident, an employee sprayed air freshener on a Filipino-American woman's lunch.

The woman whose lunch was allegedly sprayed, Priscilla Pennalosa, said at a news conference Monday that she left DRMC in 2009 as a result of the harassment. She'd worked there since 1999 and hadn't been harassed until the 2006 meeting held by hospital management, she said.

Pennalosa said she felt "sad, angry and humiliated" by the way she was treated, and she's happy a settlement was reached. She now works at Wasco State Prison.

According to the EEOC website, "An employer can only require an employee to speak fluent English if fluency in English is necessary to perform the job effectively. An 'English-only rule,' which requires employees to speak only English on the job, is only allowed if it is needed to ensure the safe or efficient operation of the employer's business and is put in place for nondiscriminatory reasons."