PBC public schools discriminated against foreign-born job applicants, federal probe finds

The Palm Beach Post | by Andrew Marra | November 11, 2020

Palm Beach County’s public schools have agreed to pay $190,000 and retrain human resources staff to resolve a federal probe that found the district illegally discriminated against foreign-born job applicants.

A U.S. Department of Justice investigation concluded this summer that the district’s human resources department engaged in “unfair documentary practices against non-U.S. citizens” by requiring them to provide unnecessary documents to prove they were authorized to work.

It was not clear what prompted the probe or how pervasive the practice may have been in a public school system whose 22,000 employees make it the county’s largest employer.

The settlement is another black eye for the district’s human resources department, which has faced recent criticism for its handling of the reopening of campuses and its investigation of a principal who refused to state that the Holocaust was a historical fact.

Employers are required to verify that job applicants can work legally in the U.S. But to prevent discrimination, federal law prohibits employers from asking foreign-born applicants for excessive documentation to prove their eligibility.

For example, a non-citizen who produces a valid Permanent Resident Card (aka “Green Card”) should not be required to provide additional documentation, according to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The federal investigation concluded that, for more than a year, the district “required non-U.S. citizens to present documentation issued by the Department of Homeland Security for employment eligibility verification because of their citizenship or immigration status, even if the individuals had other acceptable documentation they wished to present,” according to the settlement.

Meanwhile, the district’s human resources officials “did not make such requests of U.S. citizens,” the settlement stated.

The school district has revealed few details about the practices that prompted its settlement with the Justice Department, raising concerns from an advocacy group that fears Hispanic job applicants may have been unfairly treated in the hiring process.

Gonzalo La Cava, the school district’s human resources director, said the discriminatory practices were not widespread, though he did not say how many job candidates may have been affected.

“There were some inconsistencies in this process and the inconsistencies have been identified and corrected,” he said in an email. “I would not agree that this was a pervasive process.”

The district downplayed the scope of the findings, saying in a statement that the investigation “did not find any evidence of intentional discrimination.”

“The investigation was focused on process and not people,” the district said. “The (Justice Department) did not find that any individual held a personal animus against non U.S. Citizens.”

In the settlement, approved by school board members Oct. 21, the district agreed to the Justice Department’s request to take several steps “to resolve this matter without court intervention.” Among them, the district agreed to:

  • Stop discriminating against non-citizen job applicants.
  • Pay a $90,000 federal fine.
  • Hold informational sessions on worker rights for non-English-speaking adults.
  • Set aside $100,000 to compensate any applicants who missed out on work or were delayed in beginning their jobs because of excessive documentation requests.
  • Train all human resources workers about anti-discrimination laws guiding the work-verification process.

The district’s reluctance to reveal details about the case has angered the Hispanic Education Coalition of Palm Beach County.

Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy

Schools Superintendent Donal Fennoy. LANNIS WATERS/THE PALM BEACH POST

When the school board approved the settlement, Superintendent Donald Fennoy told board members his administration would work with the coalition to avoid similar problems.

Since then, the coalition says, Fennoy’s staff has refused to fulfill its requests for information, leading the coalition’s leader to accuse them of stone-walling to avoid public scrutiny.

Joaquin Garcia

Joaquin Garcia, Hispanic Education Coalition Chairman. PHOTO BY PHOTOSBYRAUL

Joaquin Garcia, the coalition’s chairman, said that the district has too few Hispanic teachers, a shortfall that has become more problematic as Hispanic students have grown into the largest racial demographic in the county’s public schools.

“[Students] need to see what Hispanic professionals look like,” he said. “They want to see people that they can emulate.”

Garcia said he feared that the discriminatory practices may have posed additional barriers for legal Hispanic immigrants hoping to teach or work in county schools.

“The DOJ doesn’t fine people $200,000 for nothing,” he said. “They have to find wrongdoing. All I wanted is to find out what happened. What is the complaint about? Who is responsible?”

Featured image: The Palm Beach County School District headquarters in Palm Springs. Greg Lovett, The Palm Beach Post

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