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When the Boss Says English Only
ABC News
Dec. 11, 2003

By Catherine Valenti

While she was working at cosmetics store Sephora in New York City's Rockefeller Center, Leydis Rodriguez says she was prohibited from speaking Spanish at all times.

"We were not allowed to speak our native language on the floor … and on our lunch break," she says.

Rodriguez and four other women all say they were told to speak English on the job, including during their breaks, and that managers frequently mimicked their speech and accents.

"I would feel really bad, angry at them, and discriminated [against]," says Mariela Del Rosario, one of the women filing the suit.

When the store closed in August of 2002, Rodriguez and two of the women who spoke out about the English-only rule say they were not offered positions anywhere else in the company, and lost their jobs.

Now the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Sephora on behalf of the women for instituting an "English-only" rule, which the commission says violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a rule that prohibits discrimination against workers based on their national origin, among other factors.

"Hispanics in particular were targeted here," says Raechel L. Adams, trial attorney for the EEOC. "People working in Sephora in Rockefeller Center in particular who spoke other languages were allowed to speak their language all day long."

For its part, Sephora says it does not tolerate discrimination of any kind and that it considers the allegations by the EEOC to be groundless and it will defend itself vigorously.

"Furthermore, we do not have, and never have had, an 'English-only' rule in our workplace," said a company statement. "In fact, Sephora encourages employees to use their foreign language skills to facilitate client service."

The Sephora lawsuit is just one of many cases popping up across the country alleging that employers are prohibiting workers from speaking their native language on the job. And with a rising number of non-English speakers working in the service sector, experts expect there to be more.

Demographics Fuel English-Only Rules

The EEOC tracked 228 charges of English-only type of discrimination in the workplace for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2002. That's up significantly from the 91 cases the commission saw when it first started tracking English-only cases in 1996.

According to the latest census data, nearly one in five people, or 47 million U.S. residents age 5 and older, speak a language other than English at home, an increase of 15 million people since 1990. That dramatic jump means that more and more employers are going to be faced with the question of dealing with workers who speak another language on the job.

With the growing number of non-English speakers in the work force, experts say many employers worry about workers using another language to insult or harass others. They want to know what's being said in the workplace.

"From the employer's perspective, the employer is saying, 'I'm under pressure to make sure I don't discriminate … but I'm going to have problems with productivity and collegiality if these groups go off and speak their own language,' " says Merrick Rossein, a law professor who specializes in workplace discrimination at the City University of New York's School of Law in Queens.

No Navajo on the Job

A case in Page, Ariz., involves RD's Drive-In, a family-owned restaurant that employs and serves many Navajo Indians. In June 2000, the owners decided to implement an English-only policy except for when workers were waiting on people who didn't speak English. The restaurant's owners, the Kidman family, said some of the workers were using offensive language in their native tongue on the job.

Workers were asked to sign a policy that said, "The owner of this business can speak and understand only English. While the owner is paying you as an employee, you are required to use English at all times. The only exception is when the customer cannot understand English. If you feel unable to comply with this requirement, you may find another job," according to the EEOC.

Four women who refused to sign the agreement say they were fired, according to the EEOC, which is currently suing the restaurant. A lawyer for the Kidman family says the women left of their own accord.

The case is still ongoing, but the Kidmans are standing firm in their case, saying that the use of abusive language in their restaurant has stopped.

"They feel like implementing that policy solved the problem," says Joe Becker, a lawyer for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which is representing the family. "They don't acknowledge or recognize that they've done anything that violates any laws."

"Undeclared War" on English?

Indeed, the legality of English-only policies is a subject of great debate. While the EEOC says it violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, supporters of English-only policies say that is a loose interpretation of the act.

"We find that the EEOC tries to give short shrift to those legitimate business and management reasons for trying to implement an English-only policy on the job," says K.C. McAlpin, executive director of ProEnglish, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit group that promotes the use of English as the country's official language and is helping the Kidman family to defend themselves.

"We call it their 'undeclared war on English,' " he adds. "We think it puts employers between a rock and a hard place and it's also bad social policy for the country at large."

Law professor Rossein says courts have generally sided in favor of employers who have English-only policies for workers while they're on the job, rather than those that ask that they speak English on breaks or at lunch.

He says many courts look to a case called Garcia vs. Gloor, in which a man named Hector Garcia was fired by a company called Gloor Lumber and Supply in Brownsville, Texas, for speaking Spanish with another employee in violation of the company's policy. The Supreme Court refused to review a lower court ruling that upheld the company's firing of the employee.

"The courts have been very conservative in this area and have not adopted the EEOC's guidelines," says Rossein. "The majority of the cases side with the employer."

Still, lawyers and representatives for the EEOC say they will continue to fight English-only policies, and expect to see more cases in the coming years.

"When it gets to the point of impinging on someone's civil rights and when it becomes discrimination against someone's culture and who he or she is, it's illegal," says the EEOC trial lawyer Adams.

"The employer is saying, '... I'm going to have problems with productivity and collegiality if these groups go off and speak their own language.'"
-Merrick Rossein, law professor
Nearly one in five people, or 47 million U.S. residents age 5 and older, speak a language other than English at home.