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Although there is much to celebrate in the realm of workplace equality in the United States, the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission warned that discrimination is still very much alive and continues to manifest itself in some disturbing ways. During the past six months alone, EEOC Chairwoman Ida L. Castro said her agency has had to file 10 cases involving hangman’s nooses. The EEOC filed actions, she said, because the employers are arguing the point, claiming that placing a noose around someone’s neck could be a joke. None of those gathered at the recent Hispanic National Bar Association’s annual Latina Lawyers Luncheon in Chicago to hear Castro’s keynote speech was laughing, of course. They instead shared startled glances, and many shook their heads when Castro added that the cases aren’t limited to African-Americans, but include Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans. “It reflects a rise in tolerating the intolerable,” Castro told the crowd. To battle such behavior, Castro urged attendees to remain committed to monitoring the workplace and implored them to work every day to make sure someone benefits from their actions. Castro was speaking to an overflow crowd at the North Michigan Avenue Westin, where the HNBA convened for “Celebracion” – the organization’s 25th annual convention. More than 600 — including a strong contingent of law students interviewing with firms, companies and the government — showed up for the four-day event that ended last Sunday. Castro, who occasionally switched to Spanish during her address, also strongly criticized English-only workplace policies, saying that, while the courts traditionally haven’t sided with the EEOC in opposing such policies, she has noticed a sea change in recent months. In September in Texas, for instance, a federal magistrate judge awarded $700,000 to 13 Hispanic telephone operators who were banned by their employer from speaking Spanish at all times, including breaks, except when requested to do so by customers. Premier Operator Services, which had filed for bankruptcy and was not present at trial, also was alleged to have placed the language policy next to a warning that “Absolutely no guns, knives or weapons of any kind” were allowed on the premises. The jury award was an EEOC record in an English-only case. And in a separate case in Chicago, the EEOC in early September accepted a $192,500 settlement, also a record, in an English-only suit that it filed on behalf of eight Hispanic employees against Watlow Batavia Inc. One worker was reportedly fired after greeting a co-worker by saying, “Buenos dias,” which is Spanish for “good morning.” “Even the president of the United States, when he sees me says, ‘Buenos dias,’ ” Castro said. Drawing on her family’s reach for the American dream as immigrants from Puerto Rico, Castro implored all in the audience last Friday to work toward the “elimination of all barriers to participation in our society.” “The target is to believe one thing … that we are equal to all but second to none,” she said. In that regard, she said it is important that attorneys and the EEOC continue to do battle for the most vulnerable of society — undocumented workers. By protecting the undocumented, Castro said the lawyers and government are protecting the legal workers who work shoulder to shoulder with them. “We cannot have enormous groups of people being abused simply because they speak a different language,” she said. But Castro added, she is not a “missionary,” here to change attitudes. “As chair of the EEOC, I may not be able to change your heart, but I will change your behavior,” she said.

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