Some employees do not share the same language as their employer or fellow employees. Does this language barrier constitute a form of actionable employment discrimination in Washington? It could if it is properly argued as a type of illegal national origin discrimination.
The Denver Post reports that a group of Auraria, Colorado janitors recently filed a class action complaint alleging that lack of Spanish communication at their workplace amounts to discrimination. More specifically, the EEOC-filed grievances allege that the lack of communication in the janitors’ native Spanish language has resulted in unfair working conditions such as: changes in scheduling, pay decreases, workplaces injuries and even terminations. The complaint also alleges that all these problems are all solvable but that the managing agency refused to communicate to the janitors in Spanish. In some instances, the complaint alleged that the English-only instructions caused the janitors to prick themselves with needles.
Two immediate questions arise in cases like these: does this constitute illegal discrimination and are the employers obligated to communicate to employees in a language other than English? Let’s tackle the first issue in this blog.
National origin discrimination is a form of illegal discrimination in Washington as well as Colorado. As it relates to languages in the workplace, prevailing on these types of claims can be quite tricky. In the employment context, national origin discrimination involves treating employees (as well as applicants) unfavorably because of his or her national origin. This employment discrimination can take place even for individuals that were born in the United States but the employer makes negative associations with the employer’s ethnicity. Interestingly enough, employees may experience national origin discrimination for perceived but not actual ethnicity or accents.
Not only is national origin discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, so too is harassment. Harassment can take many forms, typically in the form of offensive or derogatory remarks relating to the employees’ ethnicity. Whether communicating to employees strictly in English would fall under national origin discrimination would require the attorneys in this case to provide a strong negative connection that the employer was making between Spanish and the janitor’s national origin.
There are many workplaces throughout the state of Washington in which there are multiple national languages being spoken within the workplaces. Although speaking one of another does not constitute discrimination per se, the Auraria janitor case is a good example of the potential safety hazards that can occur when employees do not understand the safety instructions given to them. Working with a Washington employment attorney can help ensure that you have a workplace that respects the various ethnicities of the workforce and makes sure that employees are safe on the job. If you are an employee and feel that you have experienced national origin discrimination, make sure you get in touch with an attorney to discuss your options for putting an end to the discrimination.