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Are workplace English-only language policies discriminatory?

According to the Pew Research Center, today, Latinos make up the largest ethnic and racial group in the state of California. Many Latino Americans, especially those who are first-generation, are native Spanish speakers for whom English is a second language.

Questions surrounding the legality of one California employer's English-only policy is currently being debated as six Spanish-speaking employees have filed a lawsuit accusing their employer of discrimination, harassment and creating a hostile work environment.


According to the lawsuit, the five of the plaintiffs were employed as food service workers and one as a custodian at a state-run residential facility for individuals with developmental disabilities. The plaintiffs contend that their employer's no-Spanish policy, which was strictly enforced during working hours and all breaks, violates labor laws and serves to discriminate against non-native English speakers.

According to California's Fair Employment and Housing Act and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an employer may only prohibit employees from speaking their native languages if doing so is "justified by business necessity. "Additionally, the EEOC states that in cases where employers attempt to enforce English only rules "at all times, including breaks and lunch time, will rarely be justified." 

In this particular lawsuit, the six plaintiffs do not hold positions in which they must communicate with residents of the residential facility. Additionally, the plaintiffs report that they were subject to increased surveillance and were disciplined if overhead speaking Spanish. The plaintiffs further assert that the English-only policy and resulting scrutiny created a hostile work environment in which they were "systematically bullied and intimidated."

Los Angeles area employees who have been subjected to English-only language policies may have grounds for a discrimination lawsuit. In many cases, workplace language bans are ruled as being unnecessary and discriminatory in nature and employees for whom English is a second language should feel empowered to come forward and stand up for their rights.

Source: The Orange County Register, "Lawsuit: English-only policy at Costa Mesa's Fairview center is discrimination," Kelly Puente, July 3, 2015

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