In September 2011, Monica Licea-Castro went to her boss at Hispanics United to express interest in a management opening. Convinced she was qualified for the job, Licea-Castro says, she was surprised when her supervisor said to forget about the promotion; it would never be hers.
She said her boss also hinted at why: She’s Cuban, and most of her co-workers at the West Side nonprofit are Puerto Rican.
“What is the staff going to say?” the head of Hispanics United is alleged to have told her.
A day later, according to Licea-Castro, the job was given to a Puerto Rican employee with no management experience.
In the world of employment discrimination, where lawsuits are fought over male bosses harassing female employees and African-American workers demanding opportunities once reserved for whites, there is occasionally a lawsuit that veers off the normal course.
Gonzalez v. Hispanics United is one of those.
The suit – named for her co-plaintiff husband – is similar to hundreds of other discrimination cases in Buffalo federal court in that it alleges a workplace bias by an employer. And like many other suits, it contends that the plaintiffs are part of a “protected class” that cannot be targeted for discrimination.
Where Gonzalez differs is that both the couple suing and the people they allege engaged in the discrimination are Hispanic.
In fact, the allegation at the heart of the civil suit is that Hispanics United discriminated against Licea-Castro and her husband, Rafael Gonzalez, not because they are Hispanic, but because they are Cuban.
“What happened to us was not happening to the rest of the staff,” Licea-Castro said.
As with any lawsuit, there are two sides of the story, and Hispanics United says it will tell its side when the time is right.
For now, the organization is simply rebutting the couple’s accusations that they were denied opportunities for promotion and paid less than comparable Puerto Rican workers. Hispanics United also says Gonzalez was terminated for insubordination and fraudulent conduct.
“Our client denies the allegations made by these former employees,” said Rafael O. Gomez, a lawyer for the organization. “And we will be vigorously defending them against this lawsuit.”
At its core, Gonzalez v. Hispanics United is still about discrimination based on national origin – in this case, Cuban – and experts say that’s enough for it to pass muster in terms of its initial review by the courts. Licea-Castro is also alleging gender discrimination.
The case, which is being handled by U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder, is headed for mandated mediation, but, short of a settlement, the court will be asked at some point to pass judgement on the suit’s legitimacy.
For lawyer Heather A. Giambra, head of the Erie County Bar Association’s Labor Law Committee, the unusual nature of these allegations, among all the other discrimination cases, is not surprising. “Human nature,” she said, “is such that people prefer people who are similar to them.”
“I really don’t see any unusual legal hurdles,” Giambra said of the lawsuit. “The fact that both parties are of Hispanic origin is irrelevant.”
Hired in 2010, Licea-Castro and Gonzalez contend that the discrimination by Executive Director Lourdes T. Iglesias began about a year later. Iglesias, a fixture at Hispanics United for more than two decades, is a well-known figure in the Hispanic and West Side communities.
The couple contends that the organization routinely paid its Puerto Rican employees 50 percent more than its non-Puerto Rican workers. Their suit also alleges that Licea-Castro was paid $12,000 less than comparable Puerto Rican managers.
“I didn’t think what I was getting paid correlated with the work I was doing,” she said in a recent interview.
Even worse was the lack of opportunity that Hispanics United provided to her and her husband, Licea-Castro said.
Their suit contends that Iglesias fired the manager of the educational resources department in the summer of 2011 and asked Licea-Castro and Gonzalez to “clean up and run” the department.
They did, each serving as interim director of the department, and a few months later, they approached Iglesias about doing the job on a permanent basis. She turned them down, and at that point, according to court papers, made the comment, “What is the staff going to say?”
Licea-Castro, during a recent interview, said that was the lowest moment in her several years at Hispanics United.
“It made me feel like I didn’t have a purpose,” she said. “I felt like nothing.”
Gonzalez agreed, describing the work environment in their final months there as troubling.
“It was very difficult,” he said. “It was very hostile.”
The civil suit by Gonzalez and Licea-Castro is the second legal complaint filed by former Hispanics United workers in recent years.
Five former employees filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after they were fired in 2010 after going on Facebook to air their complaints about working conditions. The employees contended that it was an issue of Internet free speech, and the National Labor Relations Board eventually ruled in their favor.
The decision is on hold pending the outcome of a separate but related case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.