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Patients' rights to hear English while they're waiting



Published: Fri, January 14, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Providence Journal: Common sense won federal approval recently when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) put its imprimatur on a policy that the Whittier Street Health Center, in Boston's Roxbury section, had implemented, requiring employees to speak English in the presence of patients -- unless the patients themselves request otherwise.

The policy lets employees converse amongst themselves in private in any language they like, but some Spanish-speaking employees considered having to speak English in front of patients discriminatory, and complained to the EEOC and the National Labor Relations Board. Under a settlement, the policy stands, and the Health Center, which serves a largely African-American and Hispanic community but includes those who speak at least 17 languages, has dropped its threat to discipline workers for past resistance to the policy.

Common sense rule

The policy also discourages workers from engaging in personal conversations in front of patients in any language. More common sense, and an etiquette that ought to come naturally: Patients are often frightened and uncomfortable, and when professionals publicly chat each other up in the waiting room or examining room, it cannot be reassuring.

The subtext of this dispute is somewhat rising tensions between African-Americans and Hispanics. The latter now outnumber the former, and are challenging some of the long-held assumptions of a group some of whose members have -- understandably, given American history -- long seen themselves as the rightful leaders of the minority community.

In any event, on the issue before the predominantly black management of Whittier Street Health Center, both common sense and simple courtesy say that management has it right.




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