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California Employer’s Limited English-Only Policy Not Unlawful

A construction company’s limited English-only policy did not constitute a hostile work environment, a state appeals court ruled, affirming a trial court decision in a lawsuit brought by two Spanish-speaking employees.

The English-only policy was not companywide, but rather applied solely to radio communications among specific individuals, some of whom did not understand Spanish. In addition, the policy was based on business necessity and the urgency of avoiding life-threatening accidents, the court said.

Applicable Law

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits an employer from adopting or enforcing a policy that limits or prohibits the use of any language in the workplace unless both of the following conditions exist:

  • The language restriction is justified by a business necessity.
  • The employer has notified its employees of the circumstances and the time when the language restriction is required to be observed and of the consequences for violating the policy.

“Business necessity” is defined as an overriding legitimate business purpose such that:

  • The language restriction is necessary to the safe and efficient operation of the business.
  • The language restriction effectively fulfills the business purpose it is supposed to serve.
  • There is no alternative practice that would accomplish the business purpose equally well with a less discriminatory impact.

In concluding that the company’s language policy did not violate the employees’ rights under FEHA, the trial court determined that the employer had no companywide English-only policy. Rather, the company had a narrowly tailored policy requiring communication in English while using the radio. The policy was aimed at ensuring the safe delivery of extremely heavy materials and so satisfied the business necessity requirement, the trial court found.

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The trial court also found that Spanish was spoken on the job. It was common knowledge among company management that a large percentage of the company’s workers only spoke Spanish. The plaintiffs testified at trial that they spoke Spanish on the job “all the time.” Both plaintiffs also testified that they were never disciplined for speaking Spanish on the job, despite the fact that their supervisors were always present at the job sites. The company presented testimony from numerous former and current employees who denied there was any English-only policy on the job sites.

Further, witnesses said the company would communicate to its Spanish-speaking employees in Spanish at all-hands meetings that the plaintiffs attended.

The evidence showed that the employer did not have a companywide English-only policy, the appellate court concluded. Rather, its limited policy applied solely to radio communications among specific individuals, some of whom did not understand Spanish. The policy was based on business necessity and the urgency of avoiding life-threatening accidents. Company employees spoke Spanish at work, and the company conducted safety and other meetings in both English and Spanish. Thus, the policy did not violate FEHA, the court said.

Martinez v. Trademark Construction Co. Inc., Calif. Ct. App., No. D076247 (Dec. 30, 2020).

Professional Pointer: FEHA regulations state that an English-only restriction may not be based on business convenience or customer or co-worker preference. The regulations further provide that a language restriction may not be implemented during an employee’s non-working time, including breaks, lunch and unpaid events sponsored by the employer.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md. 

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Written by HR Today

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