Category: National Origin Discrimination

While English is the preferred language in the United States, it is certainly not the only one that is spoken on a daily basis. In places like Southern California, other languages, including Spanish, are incredibly common. However, it seems as though some people are very against the use of any language other than English. In fact, one grocery store in San Diego reportedly even went so far as to prohibit their employees from speaking Spanish on company property.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a lawsuit on behalf of these Southern California employees. Under federal and California state law, it is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of their country of origin.

The EEOC argues that prohibiting employees from speaking Spanish in any capacity is a blatant violation of anti-discrimination law. The government is seeking a court order to prohibit the employer from implementing discriminatory policies, as well as monetary damages for some of the employees who were personally harmed by the practice.

Policy Banning the Spanish Language

According to the lawsuit, the grocery store in question had an unwritten policy in place that prohibited all employees from speaking Spanish while on company property. This extended to times when employees were on break or aiding non-English speaking customers. At least two employees claim to have been “admonished” and reprimanded by grocery store supervisors for speaking Spanish at work.

One employee attempted to file complaints on the company hotline, but was thwarted when the representative demanded they be given the complaint in English since they were “living in the United States.” The same employee requested a transfer to a different store, but was told the request would only be considered if she removed any mention of harassment and discrimination from her request.

Discrimination Based on Country of Origin

Both Federal and California state law prohibit employers from discriminating against employees because of their country of origin. Does this extend to policies regulating the language employees speak while on company property? It depends.

According to the EEOC, there may be times when an employer has a legitimate reason to limit an employee’s ability to speak a certain language. However, since “linguistic characteristics are closely associated with national origin,” it is important to make sure limiting policies are not in violation of the law. In other words, there is a very fine line between policies that are acceptable and those that are not.

Generally speaking, policies that demand employees to speak only the English language will probably not be in compliance with federal and state anti-discrimination policies. While it may be necessary to require an employee to speak English to perform essential functions of the job, it is probably unnecessary to prohibit that employee from speaking Spanish for the duration of their shift.

Employers must be able to point to a strong and necessary business reason for requiring employees to speak only English. The EEOC explains that “the weaker the business reasons, the more difficult it may be to justify the policy.”

Let’s go back to the California grocery store policy. According to employees, the policy prohibited the use of Spanish language at any time during a shift. This included an employee’s own personal break time while on the property and interactions with Spanish-speaking customers.

The company will have to prove that its policy demanding English-only communication has legitimate and strong business purposes. Preventing employees from speaking Spanish to specifically help Spanish-speaking customers seems to do more harm than good. As a result, the employer’s policy will likely be found to be in violation of the law.

Remedies Available to Discrimination Victims

The EEOC’s national origin discrimination lawsuit is seeking two things: equitable relief and punitive damages.

Equitable Relief: Equitable relief is a type of non-monetary award available to victims of discrimination. Instead of demanding money, victims can ask a court to order an employer to (a) do something or (b) refrain from doing something. In this case, the EEOC is asking for the court to order the employer to cease all discriminatory practices, including the one banning the use of the Spanish language. This order can make it possible for the employees to have a safe and enjoyable workplace.

Punitive Damages: Victims of discrimination aren’t limited to asking for equitable relief. Sometimes discriminatory and harassing behavior can cause physical and/or emotional harm. Punitive damages can be awarded to punish an employer for its illegal actions.

California Workplace Discrimination Attorneys

Have you been the victim of discrimination or harassment in the workplace? Contact the Briski Law Firm for help. Our San Jose discrimination attorneys will fight to protect your rights and get you the relief you deserve. Call today to schedule a free consultation and learn more.