Language Barriers

When Dolores Escorbor and Maria del Carmen Perdomo were caught having a conversation in Spanish while sorting clothes at a Salvation Army thrift store in Framingham, Mass., management got upset. The two employees were given an ultimatum: They had one year to learn English or they would lose their jobs.

A year later Escorbor and Perdomo still hadn't learned fluent English, and the Salvation Army fired them. The women filed a complaint with the EEOC, which in March 2007 sued the Salvation Army on their behalf, claiming their termination was a violation of national origin protection under Title VII.

On the Hill
While the EEOC dukes it out with the Salvation Army in the courts, legislators are attempting to clarify the law in Congress. Prompted by the EEOC's suit, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) introduced in December 2007 the Protecting English in the Workplace Act. If passed, the bill would amend Title VII to allow employers to require that employees speak English while "engaged in work." The bill further states that an employee will not be engaged in work during lunch or other designated breaks.

Also in December, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) introduced the Common Sense English Act. This bill simply says it shall not be an unlawful employment practice to require employees to speak English while engaged in work. This legislation, however, stops short of defining what constitutes "engaged in work."

Employees can also implement cultural sensitivity training programs for supervisors--especially those who work closely with non-native English speakers. "Train them to understand why non-native speakers would feel threatened by such a rule," Sullivan says.

Providing non-native English-speaking employees the opportunity to learn the language is also a good idea. "Offer English as a Second Language classes to these employees," says Sheryl Willert, partner at Williams Kastner in Seattle. "This isn't required, but it's a good practice, and there are many progressive employers already doing it."

staff Writer

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