Are English-Only Rules Lawful?

According to the 2011 Census, California has the largest ethnic minority population in the United States, counting for 12% of the country’s total ethnic minority population. With such ethnic diversity, employers are tasked with being equal to all ethnicities and employees. As per the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, discrimination based on race or national origin is strictly prohibited.

One point of contention and constant discussion is the idea of maintaining English-only language policies in the workplace. Is it lawful? Can the employer do that? Well, like most areas of the law, maybe.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers may enforce an English-only policy “if it is necessary to promote workplace safety or efficiency.” The EEOC cites the example of employees speaking only English during emergency situations as to avoid confusion or if dealing with customer who speak only English.

An employer may not implement said policy if it is for a discriminatory reason. For instance, in 2012, Delano Regional Medical Center (DRMC) implemented an English speaking policy that applied to Filipino-Americans exclusively. Filipinos were strictly prohibited to speak languages like Tagalog and Ilocano while their Latino counterparts were not only permitted to speak Spanish but were also encouraged to turn in their Filipino co-workers who did speak the banned languages. DRMC faced a class action alleging national origin discrimination and a hostile work environment and agreed to settle the case for $975,000.