“This is America, Speak English!” – a phrase for which those who speak a second language in the United States are very familiar.
Although employers sometimes have a reason to require English at the workplace (i.e. business necessity or safety reasons), the employer is also not allowed to simply make a blanket rule whereby it bans all other languages from being spoke.
First and foremost, an employer is not allowed to discriminate against an employee due to their national origin. In the past, courts have held that, when an employer implements English-only policies, if the employer is doing so based on a justifiable business need or safety reason, it is permitted. By way of example, in a hospital where all employees need to be apprised of what is happening at all times because someone’s life may be at stake if any misunderstanding or if a supervisor needs to understand what is being said by his subordinates in order to properly supervise the work environment, an English only policy would likely be deemed permissible.
Of course, employers sometimes abuse English-only policies and, instead, implement them in a discriminatory fashion. However, a recent decision by an Administrative Law Judge in Las Vegas, Nevada, may be affecting all employers nationwide, if the National Labor Relations Board adopts the Judge’s recommendation.
In the Nevada case, the English only policy used in a hospital setting prevented the employees from freely communicating in their native language about working conditions, and/or terms and conditions of employment. Such is an unfair labor practice under Federal law, namely, 29 U.S.C §158. Specifically, the English-only policy at issue required employees to speak English “when conducting business with each other,” “when patients or customers are present or in close proximity,” and “while on duty between staff, patients, visitors [and/or] customers . . . unless interpretation or translation is requested or required.” Although phrased in a way to sound like a “business necessity,” the Judge saw through this and held that the policy was vague in time and location because it required employees to speak English while on duty, between themselves, staff, customers, visitors, and in non-patient areas. As such, it was held unlawful because a non-native English-speaking employee should be able to converse with another non-native English speaking employees about their respective working conditions. The Judge further noted that she failed “to see how patient care would be disrupted by Respondents restricting employees to speaking only English.”
This ruling, along with other decisions narrowing the scope of where an English-only policy is allowed, will continue to eliminate discriminatory behavior by employers.
If you currently work for an employer that has an English-only workplace policy, or you are an employer who wishes to implement such a policy but want to make sure you are doing so legally, call Wilson McCoy, P.A. at (407) 803-5400. We are experienced in this area and can evaluate the policy and determine its potential ramifications.