Agency workers chafe at English-only order

Boston Globe 4/6/2003

By Caroline Louise Cole, Boston Globe Correspondent, 4/6/2003

The director of the area's largest antipoverty agency last week moved to clarify a recent policy directive that staff members speak only English in the office except when they are talking to clients who speak another language.

 

The clarification came as members of the agency's largely Latino staff objected to the directive as a violation of their civil rights.

Philip F. Laverriere, who has headed the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council for 37 years, said in an interview Thursday he never intended the executive order he issued March 19 to be used as a tool of intimidation.

''No one was going to lose their job if they kept speaking Spanish,'' Laverriere said of the executive order, which read simply: ''All staff MUST speak English unless they are talking with clients who speak a different language.''

''I never intended for this to be used in a punitive way. I was merely trying to create more harmony in our staff,'' Laverriere said.

But Felicita Caminero, a member of the agency's board of directors and a native of Puerto Rico, said that instead of improving employee relations, Laverriere's policy caused needless fear and anxiety.

''These workers who really need these jobs were very offended,'' Caminero said. ''They felt threatened that they would lose their jobs, and they saw it as a way for the bosses who only speak English to exert control and power over them.''

The Greater Lawrence Community Action Council is a state and federally funded agency with a budget of $18 million and a staff of 270. It runs a popular Head Start preschool education program, home energy assistance, immigration resettlement, health and nutrition programs, and other services intended to help the poor become self-sufficient.

Laverriere, who does not speak Spanish fluently, said he issued the policy after hearing years of complaints from several of his program managers who speak only English. The staff of the agency, like the city of Lawrence itself, is overwhelmingly Hispanic though most of the managers do not speak Spanish, Laverriere said.

''I was responding to paranoia from several on my staff who said they felt uncomfortable when their workers talked together and they couldn't understand what they were saying,'' he said. ''It has never bothered me that my secretaries speak Spanish right outside my office, but I kept hearing the complaints, so I issued the order.''

Isabel Melendez, director of the agency's highly regarded Spanish Community Program, said she disregarded Laverriere's directive as soon as he promulgated it.

''I respect my bosses, but no one is going to tell me what language to speak, because I have freedom of speech, so I ignored it,'' said Melendez, a native of Puerto Rico who has lived in Lawrence for nearly 40 years. ''I speak English just fine, and I even try a little Italian and Portuguese when we have clients for whom that is their native tongue, because it makes them feel more comfortable. But that's the point. If I feel better speaking my native language, that's what I will do.''

Last week, once he began to hear complaints about the directive, Laverriere issued a four-paragraph memo explaining his intentions.

''If anyone felt this executive order was a violation of his or her human rights as an employee, then I am really sorry,'' he wrote in a memo dated April 3. ''To speak more than one language and be bilingual is an asset, not a liability.''

Laverriere said in the interview that he intended to keep the policy in place because ''bilingual workers do need to be more sensitive themselves to how those who don't speak English feel when they lapse into Spanish.''

However, he said, he would direct his managers not to reprimand their workers if they ignore the directive.

Caroline Louise Cole can be reached at cole@globe.com.

This story ran on page 1 of the Globe NorthWest section on 4/6/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.