Where 'English only' falls short

Companies scramble to cope with multiple languages in the workplace

They were the go-to people when customers needed advice in Spanish about eyeshadow or perfume. But when Hispanic employees wanted to speak Spanish to one another, they say it was forbidden - even on lunch breaks.

Five women who worked for the cosmetics store Sephora in New York filed complaints, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued last fall on their behalf. They argue the policy is too restrictive and amounts to national-origin discrimination, which is illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"All of the [women say] how hurtful it is to be told that you can't speak your own language," says EEOC attorney Raechel Adams. "Language is so closely tied to their culture and their ethnicity. [Ironically,] they were expected to assist Spanish-speaking customers."

As companies hire from an ever more diverse labor pool, they reap the benefits of bilingualism, but they're also running into a Babel of problems.Already, a fifth of the nation's population speaks something other than English as their primary language (in some areas, it's two-fifths). Many of them have limited English proficiency that can lead to costly mistakes or low productivity. Managers worry about compromised safety or the quality of customer service. And if some workers use a foreign language to mock others, morale can break down.

There's no quick fix. Some employers go to the expense of offering classes to improve workers' English. Others turn the tables and train supervisors in languages most often spoken by workers in their industry (see story, page 15). What seems the simplest answer to some - an English-only policy - is tricky because conflicts between court rulings and EEOC guidelines leave a lot of gray areas.

In the case of the five New York Hispanics, Sephora denied that it had an English-only rule or discriminated in any way. The court is awaiting the store's answer to the complaint.

English-only policies generate few official grievances. In 2002, the EEOC received 228 such complaints out of about 9,000 claims of national-origin discrimination. But observers say that many more workers who feel silenced don't take action for fear of losing their jobs.

Often what determines fairness is how a policy is implemented and whether there's an atmosphere of ethnic tension. In a case settled recently for $1.5 million, Hispanic housekeepers at a casino were not allowed to speak Spanish. A janitor reported that he had to hide in closets to train new employees who understood only Spanish. Others told of harassment by supervisors who called them "wetbacks," accused them of stealing, and fired them for objecting to the English policy. The Colorado Central Station Casino in Black Hawk did not return calls seeking comment. In the settlement, it denied wrongdoing but agreed to remedies such as posting notices declaring there is no English-only rule.

For bilingual people, suppressing the tendency to talk in both languages can be difficult. They may know enough English to get by in their jobs, but to talk about family or other topics with friends, their primary language offers them a much richer vocabulary.

"It's called code-switching," says Nina Perales, regional counsel of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), which joined the EEOC in the suit against the casino. "You might switch languages for reason of emphasis or because you're more comfortable explaining certain things in one language versus the other." And sometimes it's even done unconsciously, linguists say.

But when conversations are restricted, "there's almost an issue of dehumanization." says Karl Krahnke, a linguistics professor at Colorado State University. "They are not being viewed as humans with the same social needs as anybody else."

Some insist those complexities shouldn't keep employers from creating a language policy if they think it's good for business. "I speak four languages ... but a business has the right to establish rules for whatever reason - it could be safety, it could be social ... so other [workers] won't feel insulted," says Mauro E. Mujica, chairman of U.S. English in Washington, D.C. His organization promotes official-English policies, which exist in 27 states and apply only to government, not the private sector. But workplace policies, he says, should not extend to people's personal time.

No Navajo

Another case takes the debate out of the immigration context. At R.D.'s Drive-In in Page, Ariz., it wasn't a "foreign" language that the boss restricted, but a native one: Navajo.

The town borders the Navajo Nation reservation, and nearly 90 percent of the restaurant's employees are Navajo, though the owners, the Kidman family, are not.

Speaking on the Kidmans' behalf, Joe Becker of the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver says the family asked employees to sign a language policy in the summer of 2000. Their reason: There were complaints from customers and staff about rude comments being made in Navajo.

The agreement read: "The owner of this business can speak and understand only English. While the owner is paying you as an employee, you are required to use English at all times ... [except] when the customer cannot understand English. If you feel unable to comply with this requirement, you may find another job."

Elva Josley and three others took exception to the rule. Ms. Josley had worked for the Kidmans for nearly three years and their families were close friends. But this, she says, was hurtful. She says the Kidmans never told her there had been complaints about things being said in Navajo.

Legacy of suppression

"A lot of native American people were sent to boarding schools and told not to speak their own language ... and they were trying to make Christians out of these 'savages,' " she says. "I [said to the Kidmans]: 'It's not fair, because you people are the ones who came to our land and you can't tell us not to be who we are.' " Without native languages, she says, the US wouldn't have had the help of the code talkers during World War II.

The EEOC sued the diner, and Josley hopes the case will be settled soon and will send a message to employers: "Everyone's human and deserves to be respected ... and next time people will think twice before doing something like this."

ProEnglish in Arlington, Va., has raised money for the Kidmans' defense, and they dispute the EEOC's claim that the policy applied to personal time. "The EEOC has been very aggressive in trying to basically demonize the Kidmans for trying to maintain a good work environment for their employees - one that [avoided] problems with the use of very foul language and also sexual harassment in the Navajo language," says K.C. McAlpin, executive director of ProEnglish.

Mixed signals

He also contends that English- language policies do not equate with national-origin discrimination, because people can be from various countries and speak a range of languages that may or may not be native to that country.

Federal court rulings on English-only cases have sent mixed signals to businesses. Some courts have used logic similar to the EEOC's, but others have upheld businesses' right to require English during work time.

The most notable of those latter cases is Garcia v. Spun Steak. In 1993, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an English-only policy that was created after employees complained that co-workers were making racist comments in Spanish.

Because the Spanish-speakers also knew how to speak English, the court said, the policy did not create a hostile work environment for them. It also said the Civil Rights Act does not give employees a right to cultural expression.

Many lawyers still advise businesses to follow EEOC guidelines by keeping policies as narrow as possible. In California, state lawmakers backed that up in 2002 by requiring employers to have an overriding business purpose for any English-language policy, and to give workers advance notice.

Employers and employees benefit by learning a new language

AUBURN, MASS. - Metal rollers clank rhythmically inside the Imperial Distributors warehouse, as employees slide boxes packed with health and beauty products down the lines. Over in the cafeteria of the Auburn, Mass., company, you hear the sound of the world's tongues - Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, and, most commonly Twi - a major language in Ghana.

This is one American workplace where an English-only policy is unthinkable. Immigrants do more than half the entry-level jobs. The situation forces Peter McQuaid, the director of distribution, to repeat himself a lot. And he relies on bilingual staff to interpret. So when a state grant came along for on-site English classes, the company jumped at the chance. For just over a year, more than a dozen employees have spent four hours a week (half of it on company time) mastering the vocabulary they need in their jobs.

"Before, when I try say something to my supervisor or to American people, I can't," says Miriam Reyes, a native of El Salvador who has worked here nearly five years and now supervises a small group of co-workers. "Now it's better for me. I feel comfortable."

Since the classes began, Mr. McQuaid has seen fewer mistakes and faster work. "The bottom line is improved productivity," he says. But morale is important, too. "They've just come out of their shells."

On the other side of the country, at a construction site in Denver, 75 supervisors opted to learn Spanish during a 10-week on-the-job course. Half the workforce on the huge interstate project known as T-REX is Hispanic - and in that group, 1 out of 4 speak very little English.

The conditions of the job are stressful, "so when you can ask people how it's going in Spanish, it sets a different tone," says supervisor Ed Carpenter. People are more willing to engage with him now, he says, telling him if they need a different tool or have a question or suggestion. During a cold snap recently, he asked his crew to let him know if the conditions were too harsh for working safely, and a few calls in Spanish did come.

While workers are on their way to learning English, T-REX officials say they want to meet them halfway.

"If you don't take time to understand their culture, you tend to, in the sublime, communicate arrogance and superiority," Mr. Carpenter says. In his setting, as in others, tension could be dangerous. "We're so dependent on each other for safety, and for the quality [of work] that's expected by the customer."

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