Labor and Employment Law

Ca. Labor & Emp't Rev. May 2014, Volume 28, No. 3

Laws Governing the Use of English-Only Policies in the Multilingual Workplace

By María G. Díaz

María G. Díaz has dedicated her legal career to representing workers in employment matters. She currently serves on the Executive Board of the California Employment Lawyers Association (CELA) and has previously served both as a board member and advisor for the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California’s Labor & Employment Law Section. She has received numerous awards, including being named "Top Woman Attorney in Northern California" by Super Lawyers in 2012.

The 2010 U.S. Census revealed that over 43.5% of California’s population speaks a language other than English at home.1 These numbers may also represent the increasingly multilingual nature of California’s workforce. While multilingualism is certainly a valuable resource for California employers competing in a global economy, it also poses considerable challenges for employers who seek to impose English-only language policies in the workplace.

The existence of English-only language rules in business settings has a long history in the United States. One of the first cases to examine the civil rights implications of English-only policies concerned a rule that applied to customers, rather than workers. In the 1973 case of Hernandez v. Erlenbusch,2 several Mexican-American patrons brought suit against the owners of a tavern in a small Oregon town, challenging their policy of prohibiting patrons from speaking languages other than English while seated at the bar. The house rule directed bartenders to escort non-compliant customers to one of the establishment’s back booths, and to raise the volume on the juke box to drown out their conversation. According to the tavern owners, they devised the English-only rule in response to "fear on the part of the white clientele that the Chicanos [were] talking about them."3 The rule "served everyone’s interests" by keeping the peace in a public place frequented by both of the town’s ethnic groups.4 The federal district court, however, found this justification unpersuasive, holding that the plaintiffs’ civil rights had been violated. In the court’s view, the English-only rule "deprived Spanish-speaking persons of their rights to buy, drink and enjoy what the tavern has to offer on an equal footing with English-speaking consumers."5

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