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and “English-Only” Violations Lawsuits

Workplace Legal Translation Services in View of “English-Only” Rules

Legal document translation services come in handy in cases that deal with civil rights issues surrounding employees who speak a foreign language in the workplace. One question that is often raised in this context is whether an employer can legally require its workers to speak English. The short answer? Only in limited situations.

Last summer, The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit in federal court against Wisconsin Plastics, Inc. (WPI), a metal and plastics manufacturer, alleging that it illegally discriminated against Hispanic and Hmong employees by firing them because of their national origin. The EEOC alleges that WPI’s conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees from discrimination based on national origin, which include the linguistic characteristics of a national origin group. According to John Rowe, a regional director for the EEOC, the EEOC’s pre-suit investigation revealed that Hmong and Hispanic employees were fired after 10-minute observations that marked them down for their English skills, even though those skills were not necessary to perform their jobs and all of the individuals who were fired had received satisfactory ratings on their annual job performance reviews. The EEOC had first attempted to settle the matter with WPI before filing suit without success.

According to EEOC regional attorney:

Our experience at the EEOC has been that so-called ‘English-only’ rules and requirements of English fluency are often employed to make what is really discrimination appear acceptable … But superficial appearances are not fooling anyone. When speaking English fluently is not, in fact, required for the safe and effective performance of a job, nor for the successful operation of the employer’s business, requiring employees to be fluent in English usually constitutes employment discrimination on the basis of national origin — and thus violates federal law.

The EEOC’s lawsuit against WPI seeks lost wages and compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of WPI’s discharged employees as well as injunctive relief to end the allegedly discriminatory practices. The case is currently pending in federal court in Green Bay before U.S. District Judge William Griesbach.

According to the EEOC’s website, employers to adopt “English only” rules in limited situations. A workplace English-only rule that is applied only at certain times may be adopted only under very limited circumstances that are justified by business necessity. See 29 C.F.R. § 1606.7(b). Such a rule “must be narrowly tailored to address the business necessity.” According to the United States Department of Labor, some situations in which the business necessity would justify an English-only rule include:

    • For communications with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who only speak English;
    • In emergencies or situations where employees must speak a common language to promote safety;
    • When employees are working as a team to complete a project;
    • To enable an English-only speaking supervisor to review the job performance of an employee whose job duties require communication in English.

According to 29 C.F.R. § 1606.7(c): if an employer with a business necessity adopts an English-only rule to be applied at certain times, the employer must inform its affected employees of the general circumstances when speaking only in English is required and of the consequences of violating the rule.

The U.S. Department of Labor has set forth the following “best practices” for employers to consider before implementing an “English-only” rule:

  • Evaluate: In evaluating whether to adopt an English-only rule, an employer should weigh the business justifications for the rule against any possible discriminatory effects.
  • Consider Alternatives: Before adopting an English-only rule, the employer should consider whether there are any alternatives that would be equally effective in promoting safety or efficiency.
  • Consult with EEO Manager: To ensure that the employer is proceeding properly, it is best to consult with the EEO Manager or the Civil Rights Center before implementing an English-only rule.

Contact document translation company All Language Alliance, Inc. for translation of multilingual legal documents and to retain deposition interpreters in any language.

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