Employees Fired For Speaking Spanish On The Job, Saying 'Good Morning' in Native Language
CHICAGO - The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today announced the settlement of a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against Watlow Batavia, Inc., a subsidiary of Watlow Electric Manufacturing Co. of St. Louis, for discriminating against Hispanic workers on the basis of their national origin by firing them for refusing to speak only English on the job.
A Consent Decree was entered today by Federal District Court Judge Milton Shadur of the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. Under the terms of the settlement, EEOC's largest ever for English-only violations, Watlow will pay $192,500 to eight Hispanic former employees in the Assembly Department of a plant in suburban Chicago that manufactures aluminum radiators and other products. The workers were discriminated against, unfairly disciplined, and terminated for speaking Spanish to co-workers and friends. One assembly-line worker, Marcelina Navar, was fired after greeting a co-worker by saying "good morning" in Spanish ("buenos dias").
"The Commission will continue to defend employees' civil rights when rules are implemented that arbitrarily penalize a single group based on their national origin," said EEOC Chairwoman Ida L. Castro. "It is imperative for employers to be aware that blanket English-only policies, those requiring workers to speak English at all times with no exceptions, may be unlawful if they are not clearly justified by business necessity."
In addition to the monetary payments, Watlow will provide comprehensive training to its management personnel, post a notice at its plant detailing the outcome of the litigation, and maintain certain employment records for EEOC's review. The agreement also requires that the company not discriminate against its workforce based on national origin nor implement any English-only rules.
"Cases involving language issues, accent discrimination, and restrictive language policies or practices are a strategic enforcement priority for the Commission," said EEOC General Counsel C. Gregory Stewart. "The Commission will aggressively prosecute such cases in order to remedy employment discrimination and protect the public interest."
Since EEOC started separately tracking English-only charges in 1996, there has been an increasing trend in charge filings alleging national origin discrimination based on such policies. Between Fiscal Years 1996 and 1999, the number of charge filings alleging English-only violations has tripled from 77 to 253 charges. In addition, the Commission has obtained several noteworthy settlements and favorable court rulings when litigating English-only cases.
"This settlement should send a strong message to employers in Illinois and across the country about the illegality of English-only rules," said John C. Hendrickson, Regional Attorney of EEOC's Chicago District Office, which filed the lawsuit. "This is an important step in our fight against discrimination on the basis of national origin. We expect that companies will think long and hard about whether to implement rules that discriminate against those who speak languages other than English when those rules aren't necessary to do the job."
EEOC's policy on English-only rules is set out in its Guidelines on Discrimination Because of National Origin (Part 29, Code of Federal Regulations, Section 1606.1). It is the Commission's position that rules requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace have an adverse impact on individuals whose primary language is not English or who are limited in English proficiency. Such English-only rules, when applied at all times, may violate Title VII on the basis of national origin.
José J. Behar, the Supervisory Trial Attorney responsible for prosecuting the case, said: "We are pleased with this outcome. Companies are finally learning a lesson as to what they can and cannot do with respect to requiring workers to speak only English."
He added: "In this case, EEOC believed that Watlow's implementation of an English-only rule constituted disparate treatment of its Hispanic workers. While English-only rules may be justified for certain safety sensitive positions, there is no legitimate rationale for prohibiting employees from speaking their native language during lunch time, on breaks, or in casual conversation to friends and co-workers."
Jonathan A. Rothstein of Gessler, Hughes & Socol, Ltd., who represented seven of the eight affected employees, said: "My clients are happy with this settlement and believe that justice has been done. The outcome of this case should remind other employers that there is a high price to pay for violating the civil rights of workers through the implementation of English-only rules."
In addition to enforcing Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, EEOC enforces the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; the Equal Pay Act; Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits employment discrimination against people with disabilities in the private sector and state and local governments; prohibitions against discrimination affecting individuals with disabilities in the federal government; and sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Further information about the Commission, including its Guidelines on Discrimination Because of National Origin, is available on the agency's web site at www.eeoc.gov.