English-only policies in service industry may be undocumented, but workers constrained by them

English-only policies in service industry may be undocumented, but workers constrained by them
Photo by deanburied/flickr.

Whole Foods Market found itself facing the threat of a national boycott last week when two of its workers in Albuquerque, N.M., were given a one-day suspension for speaking Spanish to each other on the shop floor. The company said in response that “English is the default language for communication” while employees are on the clock, but argued that this does not amount to a “no foreign languages spoken” policy.

Latino Rebels, a national blog writing on all things Latino, called the grocery retailer out for being “English-only,” and mocked its attempts to lure Spanish-speaking customers while disciplining its Spanish-speaking workers.

Was the Whole Foods directive discriminatory? And how widespread is the problem of employers prohibiting their workers from speaking a foreign language while around customers?

Astar Herndon, research and policy coordinator with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Chicago, an organization that advocates for the rights of restaurant workers, said Whole Foods is not the only establishment to tell its workers where and when they can speak a foreign language.

The practice is widespread in the restaurant industry, said Herndon, though it’s rarely a written rule.

“What we are finding is there aren’t policies [about languages spoken on the shop floor], it’s just a culture, especially in the higher end established restaurants,” Herndon said. “I have heard that workers are discouraged from speaking Spanish in the presence of customers.”

Whether this is legal under current employee discrimination law depends on why the employer makes the request. Employers aren’t allowed to discriminate on the basis of national origin, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that enforces federal employment discrimination laws. But if an employer wants to mandate that its workers can only speak English, it must be for “nondiscriminatory reasons,” said Joseph J. Olivares, public affairs specialist with the EEOC based in Washington D.C.

Olivares said nondiscriminatory reasons can includes: “communicating with customers, co-workers and supervisors who only speak English, emergencies in which workers must speak a common language for safety reasons and cooperative assignments in which a common language is needed for efficiency.”

This applies to rules that are both written and only verbal, Olivares said.

Herndon's concern is that, regardless of how an employer justifies its rules, prohibiting workers from speaking any language but English on the shop floor has very real consequences for the earning power of low-wage multilingual workers.

Grocery store cashiers or restaurant servers invariably get paid more than those in the back of the shop doing dishes or unloading boxes, Herndon said. And if an employer doesn’t like the idea of its front-of-house employees speaking a different language, even to each other, it tends not to hire those workers anyway.

“What we have found is that in fine dining positions, those jobs are not accessible to people of color, whether you have an accent or are just darker skinned,” she said. Only a small proportion of restaurant jobs--22 percent--offer a living wage, said Herndon, and those are disproportionately held by white and male workers.

The National Restaurant Association did not respond to requests to comment on this.

If an employer is specifically not hiring workers whose first language is not English, that would have a disproportionate impact on a particular group and could be cause for a discrimination complaint to the EEOC, Olivares said. The agency will also investigate complaints of discrimination regardless of a worker’s immigration status.

Each year since fiscal year 2010, more than 200 complaints of English-only discrimination have been filed by employees with the EEOC against employers who they allege adopted English-only rules that were deemed discriminatory, according to figures provided by the agency.

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Trish Kahle, a cashier at a Whole Foods Market store in Chicago, said she is against a policy that keeps workers from speaking a foreign language to each other on the shop floor.

“Spanish-speaking workers who use a different language as their primary form of communication are put to the back of the house where [the jobs] pay less,” she said, while the front of the store is staffed by employees she described as “white and hipster.”

Not only does the policy “undermine workspace needs,” said Kahle, “it’s just racist.”

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  • This is just one way Whole Foods treats its employees like dirt. I've refused to shop there since they moved into Chicago.

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