An article from the Seattle P-I reports that the ACLU has filed a discrimination lawsuit on behalf of Bryan Baldizan and Lupe Gonzales, two Whole Foods employees suspended for complaining about the store’s English-only policy. We recently discussed that language gaps in the workplace might be a form of discrimination based on national origin. In the same way, an English-only policy might amount to unlawful discrimination.
Baldizan and Gonzales say that only Spanish speakers were singled out under Whole Foods’ English-only policy even though other employees in their store spoke different languages. After Baldizan and Gonzales’s story gained national attention, Whole Foods posted a revised language policy on its blog. However, Baldizan and Gonzales say that even under the new policy, they are still prevented from speaking Spanish.
Both federal and Washington law prohibit discrimination on account of an employee’s national origin, including discrimination based on the employee’s native language. Workplace language policies are not necessarily discriminatory, although they can be. The language policy itself, the employer’s reasons for having the policy, and the way the policy is enforced are factors that can show if a workplace language policy is actually national origin discrimination.
In some cases, the actual workplace language policy might discriminate in an obvious way. Employers cannot have language policies that have a negative effect on people of a certain national origin. If a language policy singles out a certain group of people or a certain language, the policy is probably discriminatory. For example, a policy that prohibited the Italian language in the workplace would be a blatant form of national origin discrimination against anyone who spoke Italian.
The employer’s reasons for having a language policy might indicate whether the policy is intended to discriminate against certain employees. Employers are permitted to have English-only policies if they are for legitimate business reasons and are not meant to discriminate against employees. For example, an employer can require employees to speak English on the job if it is necessary for safety reasons. An employer can even have an English-only policy to make sure that business operations run smoothly. However, if there is no legitimate business reason, an English-only policy might amount to discrimination.
Even if a workplace language policy seems nondiscriminatory, it might be enforced in a discriminatory way. For example, enforcing an English-only policy against French speakers but not against German speakers might be discrimination. Another form of discrimination might be if a supervisor assigned jobs in a way that separated employees who speak the same non-English language.
If the way Whole Foods enforced its English-only policy made it in effect a “no-Spanish” policy, then employees like Baldizan and Gonzales may be able to prove that they were victims of national origin discrimination. An employment lawyer can help employees who believe they have faced workplace discrimination. Employers can consult an attorney to ensure that their workplace language policy is not discriminatory.