English-only policies in the workplace: What’s the law in California?

California employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of their race, ethnicity, ancestry, or national origin. The law, however, becomes less clear when it comes to language requirements for employees. A workplace policy prohibiting the use of a specific language could easily be interpreted as discriminating against people of a specific race or national origin. These English-only policies often create conflict between employers and employees. So it’s important for non-English speaking employees to know the law in this area.

Can I be legally required to speak English at work all the time?

Probably not. In most cases, there is no reason for any employer to require any employee to always speak English. Because a blanket English-only rule at work is burdensome and potentially discriminates against employees, federal employment law has set tough standards for employers to follow when implementing English-only language rules in the workplace. California and federal courts recognize that English-only policies in the workplace are a potential form of national origin discrimination and can create a hostile work environment

Discriminating against a worker for their accent is also considered a potential form of discrimination. ((Berke v. Ohio Dep’t of Public Welfare (6th Cir. 1980) 628 F.2d 980.)) It is against the law to deny an individual a job, or discriminate against that person solely on the basis of their accent without a legitimate business reason. ((Carino v. Univ. of Oklahoma Board of Regents (10th Cir. 1990) 750 F.2d 815.))

When can an employer require employees to only speak English?

Federal employment law is governed, in part, by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title VII an English-only rule at work is only permitted when speaking English is a business necessity to ensure a safe and efficient operation of the business. ((Code of Fed. Regs., tit. 29, § 1606.7.)) Employers must also provide adequate notice of this language restriction.

A few examples of business necessity include:

  • Dangerous conditions. If the job site is one that involves a high risk of physical injury or death, an English-only policy might be necessary to ensure the highest level of safety. Risky job sites and situations could include: construction sites, emergency medical operating rooms, critical laboratory services, and other employment that involves serious risk or injury.
  • Ensuring proper supervision. Where supervisors who only speak English need to be able to monitor all employee communications to ensure work is being efficiently carried out and only appropriate discussions are taking place.
  • Business requires it. Where English needs to be spoken to communicate with customers, co-workers, or supervisors that only speak English, an English-only policy may be appropriate.

Have workers filed lawsuits against employers for an English-only policy in the workplace before?

Yes. And many of these workers have succeeded in their claims of discrimination. In 2012, a medical center in California agreed to pay $975,000 to a group of Filipino healthcare workers in a case involving language discrimination. ((Press Release by U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Delano Regional Medical Center to Pay Nearly $1 Million in EEOC National Origin Discrimination Suit (Sept. 17, 2012), available at http://www1.eeoc.gov//eeoc/newsroom/release/9-17-12a.cfm?renderforprint=1.)) Workers who were heard to speak Tagalog at any time were threatened with suspension or termination from work. These health care workers would not be permitted to speak their native language of Tagalog even while they were making personal phone calls during their break time to family or friends.

Another case involved Hispanic workers whose supervisors created a policy that no worker was allowed to speak Spanish at all times while at work. ((E.E.O.C. v. Premier Operator Services, Inc. (N.D. Tex. 2000) 113 F.Supp.2d 1066.)) Spanish was not allowed to be spoken during lunch, before or after work, or even between husband and wife while inside the work building. ((Id. at 1069.)) Workers who spoke Spanish were threatened with being fired. The court found that workers’ rights were violated and awarded them total damages of $650,000. ((Id. at 1078))

What should I do if my supervisor or employer only wants me to always speak English?

If your supervisor or boss is telling you to only speak English at work, you should first review your employer’s notice of their English-only language policy. If there is no English-only language policy, you could suggest to your human resources department or supervisor that one be created. If there is an English-only language policy, you should feel free to ask your employer or supervisor for the reasons behind these rules and regulations.

Last thoughts.

If your workplace forces you to speak English, you have rights. Call us, Optimum Employment Lawyers, at (949) 954-8181. Our consultations are free and confidential. We are committed to protecting the rights of all hard-working employees.