Know Your Rights

By Corrado Gigante, Retired Director, US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Board Member IAOVC

In my last column, I wrote about the experiences of two Italian American women working in an American Legion hall in Rhode Island. They experienced ethnic and sexual harassment clearly directed at them by words and deeds. Yet, in many instances of discrimination, the language used is not so clear and overt, since it is often subtle, couched in ways to hide the malicious intent. Let me share with you once such example that many of you are already familiar with. Leave With Out Pay (LWOP) is a commonly used acronym in the field of human resources and payroll administration for recording leave used by an employee when that individual employee has insufficient leave time available. On its face it is a neutral term, but in fact it has been the source of harassment charges filed by individuals and groups. A very small number of employers however use only With Out Pay (WOP).

The term LWOP is not itself the reason for charges having been filed, rather it is the mocking language, labels and innuendoes spawned from the acronym. One such set of charges filed involved a detention center here in New Jersey. A group of Italian Americans, along with several non Italian American detention center officers, filed federal charges alleging national origin harassment. Before they filed charges, the officers had filed internal complaints with the Equal Opportunity office within their department. That office found no violation of departmental rules on harassment nor violation of state or federal laws. The department they worked for used only the WOP designation for leave usage. The complaints alleged that the term WOP was being used to mock and insult Italian American officers. The term was often referred to by senior officers, mostly non Italian American, derisively as “an Italian Holiday” both verbally and in writing. When making requests for leave without pay, it was often the case that the requesters would have the term repeated to them several times in an emphatic mocking manner. The requests were made in writing using a leave request form that included check boxes for several types of leave. Next to the check boxes in bold letters were the definitions for each type of leave. The letters WOP were quite prominent on this form.

What is interesting about this case is that the department had previously used another system to record leave which had not included WOP on the leave request form. When the department began to use a new system for recording leave, it adopted the WOP acronym. Soon after its implementation, officers began to voice objection to its use and made it known to higher level personnel. In response to the officer’s complaints, retaliatory actions were taken by those superior officers against the officers. The department’s response to the charges was that it did not see the use of the term WOP as a form of harassment. They argued that it was a legitimate use of a term for leave record keeping purposes. The message sent by the department and its attorneys was that it wasn’t that so important an issue that it would rise to a violation of federal and state laws. The agency’s officials could not see that the use of the term and the insults and mockery associated with it could be similar to the use of ethnic slurs against other groups. Indeed, this was one of the first such charges by Italian Americans. The department had ample experience in addressing harassment and discrimination charges brought by other racial and ethnic groups. It had been sued several times in state and federal courts on discrimination and harassment allegations brought by those other groups. It had paid out millions in damages to those other parties.

Yet the same departmental officials that had experienced those other charges and suits could not appreciate the complaints from Italian Americans. Imagine if an acronym for a new process or computer program formed racist words. Those officials would certainly appreciate the inappropriateness of the term and work to change it. Yet in this instance, they could not see the injustice. A settlement was subsequently reached on the removal of the WOP term. Later, findings of violation of civil rights laws were issued by the federal agency against the department.

As I wrote in my earlier column, my experience is that Italian Americans don’t generally file charges based on national origin discrimination. And yet we see the proliferation of harassing and demeaning stereotypes of Italian Americans in our media that transfer to the workplace. Many will tell you that they just “suck it up” and don’t fight it. The problem then is that there is little development of case law and experiences for those in the civil rights field to handle discrimination charges alleging national origin discrimination by Italian Americans. For eons, racist language was common in the workplace. Sexual harassment was a fact many women endured in the workplace. Religious bias and hatred was not uncommon. All of these issues and others have had the opportunity to be recognized in law as unlawful actions in the workplace. When we don’t complaint, we don’t allow for the development of appreciation of the severity of the issue by those not Italian American. The avenues for redress are there for us. We need use them when we hear and feel the discrimination. It’s time to speak out.