Monday, March 06, 2006

English-Only Policies--Disparate Action/Treatment?

A recent article by the National Public Employment Reporter, entitled "English-only policy may violate civil rights of Hispanic employees," reports on the recent finding by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the case of Maldonado v. City of Altus, No. 04-6062. The link to the full article can be found here (It's a Lexis-Nexis article, so if you are off campus you'll have to sign in).


In 2002, the street commissioner of Altus, OK, received a complaint that street department employees were speaking exclusively in Spanish. As a result, other employees could not understand their (the Spanish-speaking workers)communication via the city radio. Soon after, the city voted for an official policy stating that:

all work-related and business communications [by city employees] during the work
day shall be conducted in the English language" with certain exceptions. The
policy was intended to insure effective communication between employees and to
promote safe work practices

A group of Hispanic employees then sued, arguing that the English-only policy discriminated against on the basis of their race and national origin. Furthermore, they raised claims for denial of equal protection and free speech. A federal district Court dismissed all of their claims.

Recently, However, a 10th Circuit majority reversed the dismissal. They decided that "a reasonable jury infer hostility towards Hispanic workers as a result of the English-only rule." Furthermore, the city created a hostile work environment for Hispanic employees.The court majority rejected the Hispanic employees' First Amendment claim. Accordingly, the court majority remanded the case for further proceedings on the employees' disparate impact and disparate treatment claims as well as their intentional discrimination and equal protection claims.


  1. In your opinion, which court was right? The District Court or the Appeals Court? Did Disparate Impact and discrimination really occur?
  2. Does the fact that non-Spanish-speaking workers couldn't understand what their Hispanic peers were saying over the radio not constitute enough reason for work necessity?
  3. Should the fact that the Spanish-speaking workers who filed the suit were bilingual, able to speak and understand English, matter?
  4. If someone is to work in America and seek protection under our laws, should they be required to know and speak English, our country's primary and official dialect?
  5. Do you think that if the facts were reversed, and it was an English-speaking Caucasian working in a primarily Spanish-speaking environment (i.e. a Mexican restaurant), the court would have ruled the same?

My Personal Opinion:

Personally, I do not really agree with the Appeals Court. I think the fact that the workers were blingual (which is noted in other related articles, not the one I gave you) matters. It caused no extra burden on them to speak Enlgish or understand it. On the other hand, their non-Spanish speaking coworkers could not understand what was being said on the radio.

Furthermore, just to play devil's advocate, could we not say that as English-speaking citizens we are showing our national pride by speaking the language of our Four Fathers? Is it not somewhat reasonable to expect U.S. citizens to know English, our primary language?

Lastly, I think that if I were to complain about working in an evironment that spoke only a foreign language, the courts would not rule in favor of me.


Blogger Jenny Postal said...

I agree with Ginger's opinion that it is unfair to allow workers to communicate in a language that is not native to our country. Dispirate impact did not occur as far as I am concerned; the employees chose to speak Spanish instead of English although they were capable of communicating in English. Speaking a foreign language that not everyone understands alienates the employees that do not speak it. It is very reasonable for an employer to expect its employees to communicate in the common language that everyone understands, and I think that the fact that an appeals court is trying to overturn the original dismissal of the suit is indicative of the possibility that our country is - in certain circumstances - beginning to be unrealistic in terms of how far it will go to help the minority party.

Furthermore, and partially on a different subject, I think that this case shows the country's need for an official national language. Though the United States is the country composed of every and any nationality, we share a common bond by being members of this country, and as members of this country, we should all be able to communicate with one another. It should be expected that while at work, employees will speak the same language all across the country. Not only would it enhance communication, but having a national language would also enhance the unity of the citizens of the US.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Professor Prenkert said...

For some background on the EEOC's take on English-only rules, check out this EEOC guidance document. Note that English-only rules are not a per se violation of any federal equal employment opportunity law. On the other hand, they do raise concerns of discrimination: (1) is the rule adopted or enforced in a way to target a particular protected group or limit the group's opportunitites (disparate treatment concerns) and (2) is the rule, if it tends to screen out or classify workers on the basis of ethnicity, race, or national origin, justified by business necessity (disparate impact concerns). You'll see that the EEOC suggests that a number of instances when English-only rules are permissible and a number of instances when they are not.

In terms of Jenny's claim that the US should declare English an official language, would it necessarily follow that such a declaration would require all workers to speak English at work? If so, why would that be a good thing? Aren't there a number of jobs that non-English speakers can do well, without any concerns about safety, performance, supervision, etc.? Wouldn't a requirement of all-English-all-the-time exclude some not insignificant number of productive workers? If so, do the benefits of the "official English enforced at work" outweigh the costs (only a few of which I've suggested here)? Moreover, what are the benefits that can't already be captured by permissible English-only rules as addressed in the EEOC guidance I've linked above?

(Jenny suggests a benefit of national unity; I don't mean to ignore that. Are there any others? Is that truly a likely benefit?)

7:54 AM  
Blogger Erin said...

In this case, I think that the most important issue is that the policy states that only "work-related and business communications [by city employees] during the work day" must be conducted in English. Because this is a city job in which employees are in communication with coworkers who do not speak Spanish, the Hispanic employees' use of Spanish is actually discriminating against non-Spanish-speaking coworkers by not allowing them to be privy to their radio transmissions. In contrast to Professor Prenkert’s example of jobs that do not require English (such as Hispanic-only businesses or jobs where the employee does not have any need to communicate with non-Spanish speaking coworkers or customers), it appears that it is necessary for all the city employees to understand what is being discussed on the radio.

Especially considering that all of the Hispanics involved actually spoke English, it does not appear that there would be a disparate impact from this policy on workers already employed. Further, it does not seem unreasonable to demand that employees understand English in this case, as they have to interact with English-speaking coworkers. I definitely believe that any discrimination would be due to business necessity. This is one of the instances in which the EEOC recommends that such a policy be enforced: "For communications with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who only speak English"

In sum, although I disagree with Jenny’s recommendation to make all U.S. employees speak English in the workplace (I do think it is in all immigrants’ best interest to learn the language of their new home, though), I feel that in this instance, there is no race or national origin-based discrimination occurring. If we were to instead pretend that the workers, instead of speaking Spanish, were speaking a secret code language that only some of the employees understood, and which had nothing to do with their race, I am sure that the city’s policy wouldn’t have been questioned. If (as I believe is in fact the case) the employees are allowed to speak the language of their choice during non-work-related conversations, I see no problem whatsoever with this policy.

5:45 PM  

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