EEOC's change to discrimination guidelines leads to lawsuit over accent

By Shanice Harris | Jan 18, 2017

HARRISBURG –  A former Verizon Communications Inc. employee is accusing the company of violating workplace discrimination laws, claiming she was fired because of her accent. Her lawsuit was filed recently in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

The plaintiff, Renata Belaya, who was born and raised in the Ukraine, began working for the company as a customer service representative in 1998, and from 2008 until her 2016 termination, she worked in a Verizon location in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

According to her lawsuit, Belaya performed above-average work throughout her employment. But in October 2014, Belaya’s manager allegedly made several comments about her accent being a problem for the company.

“The plaintiff has alleged that there were several comments that she needed to get rid of her accent in order to continue to work for the company,” Dean Dietrich, attorney at Ruder Ware in Wisconsin, told the Pennsylvania Record. “We sometimes call that ‘a smoking gun’ as an indicia of discriminatory intent or consideration of race and national origin as a factor.”

In Dietrich’s blog post on the case, he states “the company was fearful customers would think their calls were being handled by someone in the Philippines or India because of her accent and then would assume that they would not receive proper service from the company.”

The manager, Kim Shatrowskas, was the only known manager to raise any concerns over the matter, according to Belaya’s complaint.

“In many of these type of cases, the company is held responsible for what the manager has done, so there is potential that the company will be held responsible in this case, if in fact that is what was said,” Dietrich said.

Within a year's period, Belaya was suspended three times, with Verizon noting poor job performance as the reason, the suit alleges, adding that in light of her suspensions, Belaya placed a call to Verizon’s equal employment hotline that brought no change

She also filed a charge of discrimination — though she eventually withdrew it — with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission based upon Verizon’s actions towards her. Belaya was eventually terminated in March 2016.

Belaya's suit alleges that her "termination was due to her race and national origin and/or in retaliation for her good faith complaints to Verizon's equal employment hotline and the EEOC."

The EEOC lays out various ways that a company can discriminate against its employees and be subject to national origin discrimination claims. The agency has just recently changed the definition of national origin discrimination to include language referring to the physical, cultural, linguistic characteristic of a national group.

Because of this, Dietrich believes the plaintiff could have a case.

“There have been a number of steps taken by the EEOC over the course of the last year, year-and-a-half, to expand their view on how the law should be applied. This is an example of that,” Dietrich said, adding that "certainly it has caused a lot of employers to say 'we have to really pay attention to how we handle these matters and give clear training to our supervisors.'”

According to Dietrich, courts do put some weight on the guidance and information offered by the EEOC. But, he does feel that with the Donald Trump administration coming in, there may be a change in how these cases are pursued.

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