English-Only Rules: New Immigration Battleground?

July 10, 2007

The immigration reform battle on Capital Hill turned into a skirmish over the EEOC’s enforcement of to English-Only rules in the workplace. By a narrow 15-14 margin, a Senate Appropriations Committee voted June 28 to approve an amendment designed to prevent the EEOC from bringing new lawsuits against companies that adopt English-Only workplace rules. As is often the case, Congressional policy disputes find their way into agency funding bills.

The EEOC views English-Only Rules as potential national origin discrimination and has adopted regulations prohibiting them unless the employer can show that the rule is justified by business necessity.   According to the EEOC’s COMPLIANCE MANUAL, an English-only rule is justified by "business necessity" if it is needed for an employer to operate safely or efficiently. The following are some situations in which business necessity would justify an English-only rule under the EEOC’s view:

  • For communications with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who only speak English
  • In emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety
  • For cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency
  • To enable a supervisor who only speaks English to monitor the performance of an employee whose job duties require communication with coworkers or customers

The EEOC has actively pursued lawsuits against employers for adopting workplace language limitations. It has achieved significant monetary settlements against businesses and touted its success on the EEOC website:

Courts are divided on the application of Title VII to English-only rules and the validity of the EEOC guidelines. In some cases, courts have supported the EEOC by finding that the language rules have a disproportionate impact on minorities and are not necessary. In almost all cases where there is a blanket prohibition on the use of a language other than English, Courts have sided with the EEOC or employees. For example in EEOC v. Premier Operator Servs., Inc., 113 F. Supp. 2d 1066, 1073 (N.D. Tex. 2000), English-only rules were found to "disproportionately burden national origin minorities because they preclude many members of these groups from speaking the language in which they are best able to communicate." Similarly, in EEOC v. Synchro-Start Prods. Inc, 29 F. Supp. 2d 911, 914-15 (N.D. Ill. 1999), English-only rules may create discriminatory work environment based on national origin.

In circumstances where an employer can articulate a business justification and show that the English-only rule is narrowly tailored to promote the legitimate business interest, Courts have not supported the EEOC’s interpretation. In Garcia v. Spun Steak Co., 998 F.2d 1480, 1487-89 (9th Cir. 1993), the court ruled that the EEOC’s guidelines on English-only rules could not be applied to truly bilingual employees because such individuals do not suffer any adverse impact from these rules and holding that the guidelines impermissibly presume that English-only policies have a disparate impact without requiring proof.

One interesting line of cases addresses an employer’s argument that the English-Only rules are needed to prevent conflicts in the workplace among different nationalities. In Roman v. Cornell Univ., 53 F. Supp. 2d 223, 237 (N.D.N.Y. 1999), the court ruled that business reasons for an English-only rule may include "avoiding or lessening interpersonal conflicts, preventing non-foreign language speaking individuals from feeling left out of conversations, and preventing non-foreign language speaking individuals from feeling that they are being talked about in a language they do not understand." Likewise, in Long v. First Union Corp., 894 F. Supp. 933, 941 (E.D. Va. 1995), an English-only policy may be legitimate and necessary for business where adopted to "prevent employees from intentionally using their fluency in Spanish to isolate and to intimidate members of other ethnic groups."

Web Resources:

Additional EEOC Materials:

Title VII – Medical Documentation in English

Spanish-language training materials

Positions of Advocacy Groups

Defending English in Court

Immigrants In USA Blog