Discrimination Against Spanish-Speaking Worker

A former saleswoman for the Baccarat store on Madison Avenue was awarded $500,000 by a Federal jury on Friday after she testified that the company president complained about her Puerto Rican accent, barred her from speaking Spanish to a co-worker, and finally dismissed her from her job selling crystal and china because of her ethnic origins.
But although the saleswoman, Erma Rivera, now 59, had contended that Baccarat Inc. was seeking a more youthful work force, the jury in Federal District Court in Manhattan did not find that age discrimination played a role in her dismissal in July 1995.
Losing the job was devastating to Ms. Rivera, who joined Baccarat in October 1986, after selling Haviland porcelain for 15 years, said her lawyer, Joseph C. Maya. “She had spent 25 years of her life teaching newlyweds how to set a place setting and about fine china,” he said. “She loved the company.” Ms. Rivera, who lives in Queens and is now employed by a department store bridal registry on Long Island, a job she struggled to find after losing her position at Baccarat, according to Mr. Maya – was unwilling to be interviewed. Her current job pays her about $21,000 a year, much less than she received at Baccarat, where her salary was in the mid-$50,000 range, her lawyer said.

Ms. Riviera’s troubles at Baccarat did not begin until Mr. Negre was installed, her lawyer said. She testified that Mr. Negre once called her into his office and told her that he did not like her accent, Mr. Maya said.  He said that testimony at the weeklong trial showed that Ms. Rivera, the mother of five children, had an exemplary record at the store and had never prompted a complaint from a customer in her nine years on the sales force. In a letter introduced into evidence, a former store manager, J.D. Watts, described her as “the top sales person during my three-year tenure at Baccarat.”

“She is fluent in Spanish and is extremely effective when dealing with South American and other Spanish-speaking customers,” Mr. Watts wrote.

Baccarat’s lawyer, Jeffrey H. Daichman, said that Ms. Rivera was one of five employees fired at roughly the same time because the company’s new president, Jean-Luc Negre, wanted to improve the store’s performance and introduce “a more positive dynamic and energetic attitude toward dealing with customers.” Mr. Negre also made the decision to make the store more inviting by moving it a half-block to a corner site at 59th Street and Madison Avenue, Mr. Daichman said.

After being named president of the company in 1999, Mr. Negre made seven visits to the store and found the sales force sitting at desks and slow to greet customers, Mr. Daichman said. Ms. Rivera “was not singled out” and was not criticized for speaking with an accent, he said.

Mr. Daichman acknowledged that Ms. Rivera was ordered to refrain from speaking Spanish to a co-worker in the presence of customers. He said the policy was instituted after a customer complained. “It’s just a matter of common sense,” he said. “If the customer is not Spanish-speaking, don’t talk another language. That’s rude.”
“There was no evidence other than her own testimony about national origin discrimination. “Baccarat has a diverse sales force that includes a Brazilian employee who speaks Spanish as well as Portuguese and three sales people 50 or older, he said.

Mr. Daichman said the company would ask the Federal magistrate who presided over the case, James C. Francis, to set aside the verdict or order a new trial.
The jury found that the company discriminated against Ms. Rivera and awarded her $125,000 in compensatory damages and $375,000 in punitive damages.

 

The New York Times Metro Section
By Terry Pristin – February 10, 1998