Some Latino workers in the United States have gone through this situation: they are casually speaking in Spanish during their lunch hour, but when a non-Latino approaches, they get quiet, look at each other, and wait for the other person to leave before they continue talking. What is the reason for this fear? Is it legal to prohibit the use of Spanish in the workplace?
Although the fundamental laws of the immigration system have remained practically unchanged during the last four decades, despite some politicians promises, the country’s immigrant population has grown significantly.
As of 2019, approximately 44.9 million immigrants lived in the United States, more than double the number in 1990. This represents nearly 14% of the country’s total population, the highest proportion since 1910, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).
In fact, one in five (22%) people in the United States does not speak English at home. Spanish was the primary language (other than English) spoken at home in the 15 fastest-growing states, including North Carolina, according to another MPI report.
Growing trends in immigration, along with the internationalization of business and a pandemic labor shortage, have led to Spanish becoming a common language in the workforce. This has in turn prompted some employers to react negatively, often trying to limit conversations and interactions to English only. Is this legal?
What does the law say?
Unlike other countries, there is no legal recognition of English as the national language in the United States. In addition, there is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. With this in mind, can a workplace impose rules saying that employees can only speak in English? The answer is somewhat complex.
The prevailing view among courts that have addressed discrimination claims on this issue is that rules requiring employees to speak English in the workplace do not violate Title VII, so long as the employer has a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason.
Non-discriminatory reasons for English-only rules in the workplace include: preventing alienation of employees who do not speak the language (in this case, Spanish) and maintaining safety in hazardous environments.
However, this does not apply in situations outside of work activity. In a nutshell, you cannot be prohibited from speaking Spanish outside of work hours or if you are on your break.
Examples of discrimination
For instance, if a group of workers is speaking in Spanish at lunch; then a message is sent out to all the company’s employees saying that “you should not speak any language other than English at work,” this would be an action that could be interpreted as discriminatory.
As another example, if an employee who speaks perfect English and has a Latino accent is turned down for career advancement or a salary increase; using the excuse that the person’s accent could affect the quality of his or her work, it may be a discriminatory act.
You cannot be treated differently because you have an accent or because you speak Spanish. The law protects you.
February 21 is International Mother Language Day. Let’s celebrate our culture, our identity, and the beauty of our language by speaking it without fear; and by teaching our children to feel pride in our roots and language.
Find this article in Spanish here.