Rochester, N.Y. – Jose Lopez says he cried after it happened.
In 2005, Lopez worked on the tarmac at the Rochester airport handling baggage for Cleveland-based Flight Services & Systems (FSS).
He says one day in the break room, his boss, Todd Dunmyer, approached.
“I was just talking about Puerto Rico and certain things you can’t say in English and he says, ‘You [must] speak English in here; I don’t like that,’” Lopez recalls.
That was the warning.
“I did it again maybe like a month later, just human nature, it’s my language of origin … He tells me to go home and sit on my Puerto Rican rear,” Lopez says.
Lopez remembers sitting in the airport lobby, dumbfounded.
“I was in tears and people were like, ‘What happened?’ And I was like, ‘I just got fired for talking Spanish,’” Lopez said.
Lopez took his case to the New York State Division of Human Rights, which found “probable cause to conclude that (Lopez) was unlawfully discriminated against based on his national origin.”
In the report, FSS said the general manager did ask Latino employees to refrain from speaking Spanish, but claims Lopez was fired “because of attendance irregularities and poor work performance.”
The report concluded FSS “did not have a policy regarding attendance violations.”
Further, Lopez claims he was punctual and grateful for the job.
“After I got fired, I lost the car I just financed … I lost visitation rights with my child because I couldn’t pay my child support,” he said.
In 2007, Lopez sued FSS.
Joining him in the lawsuit was his former supervisor at FSS, James Cromer.
“After Dunmyer heard Lopez speaking Spanish a second time, he approached me about signing papers against Jose and I was like, ‘I don’t want any part of that, I don’t have a problem with what he’d done, he speaks Spanish,’” Cromer recalls.
Cromer was fired shortly after Lopez.
FSS told the Division of Human Rights Cromer lied about an accident with a baggage cart.
FSS declined to interview with 13WHAM regarding this case, but their attorney, Elizabeth Cordello, did offer this statement:
"This lawsuit has been ongoing for well over four years and during that time the Plaintiffs have been represented by four different law firms. FSS has asked the Court to dismiss all of the claims and is awaiting a decision on that request. FSS has every confidence in the legal process and that this lawsuit will be dismissed in its entirety."
Van White, the current attorney for Lopez and Cromer, says he welcomed the case.
“You cannot tell an employee in the United States of America, ‘Do not speak Spanish or I’ll fire you,’ end of story,” White said.
Having received a positive decision from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Lopez was able to bring case before a federal judge.
Lopez is hoping for a jury trial within the next year.
FSS is no longer contracted to work at the airport, however the company does operate at several airports across the country.
Cases like this have made news in Rochester before.
In 2006, Highland Hospital ended its English-only policy after settling with Spanish-speaking employees.