Can I require employees to only speak English in the workplace?
You may recall earlier this year the viral video of a white New York attorney berating Spanish speaking workers at a fast food restaurant to speak English and threatening to call ICE on the workers. The video received national media attention. With increasing tension surrounding immigration in this country, the video highlighted a growing issue in U.S. workplaces.
According to the Census Bureau, more than one in five people living in the United States speaks a language other than English at home, and the number of U.S. residents who are defined as “limited English proficient” almost doubled between 1990 and 2013, from nearly 14 million to 25.1 million. With these statistics in mind, employers may be asking, “Under what circumstances can I impose an English-only rule on my work force?”
In Pennsylvania, most lawsuits challenging English-only rules are brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act alleging discrimination on the basis of national origin.
Claims based on so called English-only policies can be costly
- In September 2012, Delano Regional Medical Center, an acute care hospital in California’s San Joaquin Valley, agreed to pay $975,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of approximately 70 Filipino-American hospital workers. According to the EEOC, the employees, mostly nursing staff, were the targets of harassing comments, undue scrutiny and discipline and were repeatedly ordered to speak English.
- In September 2013, the EEOC announced a $200,000 settlement of a national origin discrimination suit against Colorado-based moving and storage company Mesa Systems, Inc. on behalf of a class of Hispanic employees. Allegations included racist name-calling and slurs by managers and the Company’s maintenance of an English-only language policy.
Employers need a valid business reason for an English-only rule
In general, an English-only rule can be justified—and is more likely legal—if it is related to a business necessity. The EEOC has stated that rules requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace violate the law unless the employer can show that they are justified by business necessity. Circumstances in which an English-only rule may be justified include:
- Communications with customers or coworkers who only speak English;
- Emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety; and
- Cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency.
An English-only rule should be limited to the circumstances in which it is needed for the employer to operate safely or efficiently. A rule requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace at all times, including breaks and lunch time, will rarely be justified. Even if there is a need for an English-only rule, an employer may not take disciplinary action against an employee for violating the rule unless the employer has notified workers about the rule and the consequences of violating it.
If your business has an English-only rule, or you are thinking about adopting one in your workplace, consult with counsel to develop a policy that will address your business needs while protecting you against possible discrimination claims. For MEA members, Member Legal Services attorneys are available to provide this assistance.