“English-Only” Rule May Violate the Law

Employees who are discriminated against by an “English-only” policy may sue their employers for discrimination. Osteria Fasulo, a restaurant in Davis, California, was sued by a former restaurant worker for discrimination. Francisca Perez alleged that she was recently fired from her job of over 10 years as a cook for speaking Spanish while at work.

Perez filed a complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing in California. In the complaint, Perez claimed she was fired for speaking Spanish and was still owed her final paycheck.  The complaint alleged that when her boss Leonardo Fasulo heard her speaking Spanish to a coworker, he told her, “This is America. We speak English here.” The complaint also alleged that, “Fasulo screamed at her, pounded a table, and mockingly asked if she wanted him to add burritos to the menu.” Fasulo allegedly told her she needed to learn English to keep her job. When Perez accused him of discriminating against Mexicans who help him by working in his kitchen, Perez claims that Fasulo told her, “You can get your ass out of my restaurant.”

Employers who impose an “English-only” rule in the workplace may be in violation of anti-discrimination laws. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces federal anti-discrimination law, has established guidelines for evaluating employers who have implemented English-only rules.  Rules requiring employees to speak only English at work violate the law unless the employer can show that they are justified by business necessity. When an employer imposes an English-only rule, employees with limited or no English skills and bilingual employees whose primary language is not English may be negatively affected because they are prohibited from communicating at work, including for work-related purposes, in their most effective language.  An English-only rule may adversely impact these employees by subjecting them to discipline and termination for speaking their most effective language while imposing no comparable risk for native English-speaking employees.  The EEOC has also found that an English-only rule “is likely in itself to create an atmosphere of inferiority, isolation, and intimidation that constitutes a discriminatory working environment.”

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; cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency. 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.


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