English-only rules can be illegal discrimination

Can employees be required to be fluent in English? The answer is yes … but only if speaking English is truly necessary for them to do their jobs safely and effectively. Otherwise, a company that has an English-only policy could get into legal trouble.

That’s what happened to a plastics manufacturer in Wisconsin that laid off 22 workers who lacked English language skills. The workers – most of whom were Hmong and some of whom were Latino – had apparently received good annual evaluations and didn’t need to be able to speak, read or write English to do their jobs.

The company claimed it targeted these workers for layoffs due to their “overall comparative skills, behaviors and job performance over time.”

But the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission didn’t buy the company’s explanation. The commission sued the company for discrimination and is seeking not only lost wages to compensate the workers, but also additional damages to punish the company for its behavior.