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Thursday, March 20, 2008

English-only rule at Philadelphia restaurant upheld

As a native of Philadelphia, nothing makes my mouth water more than a cheesesteak (please, please, don't call it a Philly cheesesteak, which is redundant, or a steak and cheese, which will just show your ignorance). You might be asking yourself, what do cheesesteaks have to do with employment law?

Geno's, one of the sacred temples of cheesesteaks at the corner of 9th and Passyunk in South Philly, had a small problem with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations about a sign hanging in its window that reads, "This is America. When ordering, please speak English." Yesterday, a split three-member panel of that Commission ruled that the sign did not convey a message that service would be refused to non-English speakers. Anti-immigration groups are heralding Geno's owner, Joey Vento, as a hero. Today's Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the one dissenting commission member relied on testimony from witnesses who "felt intimidated and unwelcomed by the sign's message. One witness, University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Camille Z. Charles, likened the 'speak English' signs to 'whites only' signs from the Jim Crow era."

While Professor Charles might be overly dramatic, her comments highlight the raw emotion that people feel over English-only rules. As the debate continues in Congress over the legality of English-only workplaces, and some state legislatures consider similar bills that would permit employers to require their employees to speak English, businesses should continue to tread carefully before implementing such a policy. English-only workplace policies should only extend as far as necessary to reach an articulated business reason (such as safety or work-related communication among employees), and it is a good idea to consult with employment counsel to evaluate whether the policy is not discriminatory as written or applied.

[Hat tip: Overlawyered]