Thursday, April 16, 2009

EEOC settlement highlights red flags for English-only policies

The EEOC announced that it settled a national origin discrimination claim against a California nursing home company for $450,000. The lawsuit arose from a charge of discrimination filed by a Hispanic janitor who only spoke Spanish. The nursing home terminated him for violating its English-only policy. By contrast, employees who spoke other languages at work, such as Tagalog, were not disciplined or terminated. According to the EEOC, it identified a total of 53 current and former Hispanic employees who were prohibited from speaking Spanish to Spanish-speaking residents, or disciplined for speaking Spanish in the parking lot while on breaks.

The Los Angeles Times further discusses some of the affected employees:

Shilo Schilling, a 40-year-old certified nursing assistant, said she was emphatically told at orientations … that only English would be allowed. In one case … she said a resident told her in Spanish that she needed to use the restroom. When Schilling responded in Spanish, she said, she was told by a supervisor that she would be written up or fired if she continued to speak that language….

Jose Zazueta, a Mexico native who worked as a janitor at the Royalwood facility, filed the original complaint alleging that he was fired because he could not guarantee he would speak only English. Anna Park [the EEOC’s regional attorney] said Zazueta was a monolingual Spanish-speaker who warned a colleague in Spanish to watch out for the wet floor he had just mopped. When a supervisor heard him, Park said, he was asked to pledge to use only English but could not and was fired.

Despite this lawsuit, there is nothing inherently illegal about English-only policies. Generally speaking, an English-only rule is okay if supported by a legitimate business justification such as promoting communication with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who only speak English, enabling employees to speak one language to promote safety or cooperation, or facilitating supervisors’ ability monitor job performance. The employer in this case made a few critical errors:

  1. It applied the rule during employees’ breaks.
  2. It selectively applied the rule to certain nationalities, but not others.
  3. It prohibited employees from communicating with patients in their native tongue.

As this case illustrates, employers should be careful to limit the reach of an English-only requirement only as far as it necessary to reach the articulated business rationale for the policy. Businesses should also consult with employment counsel before implementing any English-language requirements in the workplace to ensure that the policy is not discriminatory as written or as applied.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or