Workers fighting English-only rules
While still rare, cases brought against employers who limit language have grown 612% since 1996.
By Jeremy Meyer
Denver Post Staff Writer
Aurora - Luz Ornelas and Guadelupe Coronado say they were humiliated and degraded when their boss forbade them from speaking their native Spanish while working at a Family Dollar store on East Colfax Avenue.
Not long after, they say, they were fired along with five other Spanish-speaking employees and replaced with workers who spoke only English.
The women recently filed a lawsuit in federal court, saying their civil rights were violated and asking for unspecified damages.
Employers in Colorado and nationwide are increasingly wrestling with language issues as the workforce diversifies.
Claims against workplace English-only rules have increased 612 percent, from 32 cases in 1996 to 228 in 2002, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
But they're still only a fraction of the EEOC's 9,000 annual claims of national-origin discrimination.
Legal experts say the number is low because workers don't know about the law or are worried about losing their jobs.
The dollar-store litigation joins a recent filing against a Northglenn McDonald's restaurant, where the accuser says workers were forced to deposit 25 cents into an "English-only" cup every time they spoke Spanish. McDonald's corporate officials say they have no English- only policies.
Federal rules forbid blanket English-only policies in workplaces. However, EEOC rules allow employers to have language policies if they can prove they're for a "business necessity" or for safety reasons.
In general, the EEOC prosecutes only a handful of English- only cases every year.
David Grinberg, EEOC spokesman, said more English- only claims are being filed as the workplace diversifies.
"We see it as a growing trend," he said. "We're trying to strike a balance between businesses and employees speaking their native language."
Grinberg said the EEOC's mission is to help employers learn the law and not to become the language police.
The most recent case in Colorado occurred last year, when the EEOC settled a $1.5 million case against a Black Hawk casino that required its mostly Hispanic cleaning staff to speak only English.
The agency usually investigates claims and issues a "notice of right to sue," allowing individuals to proceed with litigation on their own.
In those cases, courts have sent mixed messages - sometimes ruling for employees and sometimes for employers.
Nevertheless, Denver attorney Leonard Martinez said he continues to hear from people wanting to sue. Many of those allegations involve English-only policies, he said.
"It's an area of the law that employers don't have a grasp on," said Martinez, who represents Ornelas and Coronado. "It's an issue that needs to be addressed."
Ornelas is a 35-year-old single mother of two who worked for $8 an hour as assistant manager at the Family Dollar store. She is from Mexico City and has limited English skills.
Coronado is a 36-year-old mother of three from El Salvador who worked for $7 an hour as a stocker and occasional checker. She cannot speak English. Both women are in the United States legally.
The women said their bosses knew about their limited English skills when they were hired but later demanded they stop speaking Spanish in the store, which serves a predominantly Latino clientele.
"I don't want them to do to someone else what they did to me and humiliate my people," Coronado said recently through an interpreter.
Family Dollar officials wouldn't comment on the case.
English-only advocates fear increasing litigation is creating a chilling effect for businesses.
"These (cases) are going to continue to grow until we have a commitment to have everyone speak English," said Tim Schultz, spokesman and staff counsel for U.S. English Inc., a Washington, D.C., group dedicated to preserving English in the United States.
"Businesses should have a right to have their employees speak English," he said. "The solution is a bigger-picture solution: Make sure immigrants are learning English."
Karl Krahnke, a linguistics professor at Colorado State University, doubts that will work. Most immigrants over 25 years old probably won't become proficient in a new language, he said. And it shouldn't be required, either, he said.
"It is unethical to require them to give up their first language," he said. "If I speak Spanish and we're close friends and you speak Spanish, to be forced to talk about our families, feelings, illness or whatever in English just because we're out of our house is unfair and unnecessary."
Staff writer Jeremy Meyer can be reached at 303-751-2621 or email@example.com .