Today’s post comes to us courtesy of Martin Burns, an associate in the Roseland office:
According to a recently filed lawsuit, Hajra v Wawa, by a former employee of Wawa, Inc., his manager singled him out and enforced an English-only policy because he spoke with an accent. The former employee claims that the manager required that he only “speak English” while on the job because no one understood what he was saying. A native of Kosovo, he alleges that the manager repeatedly instructed that he speak English despite only speaking that language while at work. From the claims in the lawsuit, it does not appear that Wawa has formally implemented an English-only workplace policy or that the manager gave similar instructions to other employees.
Putting aside the allegations that the manager singled out the employee and purportedly treated him differently because of certain characteristics associated with his national origin, could Wawa, or any other employer, require that its employees only speak English in the workplace?
The answer to that question depends upon the circumstances in question. The United States does not recognize an official language. Many states have existing official language laws. Although New Jersey does not have any such law, there is a bill in committee in the New Jersey State Senate that if adopted and signed into law would designate English as the state’s official language. Despite a lack of consensus on this issue by our federal and state political bodies, English-only work rules are not unheard of and can be legal at times.
It is clear that an English-only rule adopted by an employer must be implemented for nondiscriminatory reasons. Furthermore, prohibiting certain foreign languages and not all such languages is unlawful. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance indicating that any such rules should relate to specific circumstances and can be justified by business necessity, such as in case of emergencies, promoting efficiency or to monitor the performance of employees whose job duties require communication where a supervisor only speaks English. Even if the employer does not have a discriminatory intent or motive, however, federal law has been interpreted as prohibiting both intentional and unintentional discrimination against persons in protected classes. According to the EEOC, employers therefore need to weigh business justifications against the possible discriminatory effects of the rule and should consider alternatives to an English-only rule that would be equally effective in promoting safety or efficiency.