Staff 'English only' policies ignite protests and lawsuits
Should long-term care employees be required to speak English? The issue flared up again in April, when Flushing Manor Geriatric Center agreed to pay $900,000 to settle an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit.The action was driven in part by the company's "English only" policy.
The New York-based provider barred Haitian employees from speaking in Creole but allowed other foreign languages to be spoken, according to the EEOC.
However, Marc Wenger, a New York-based lawyer representing the geriatric center, says the EEOC's characterization is inaccurate and it believes its language policies are consistent with EEOC guidelines.
He says there was no restriction on using other languages during breaks, adding the consent degree was not an admission of wrongdoing.
With the number of U.S. residents who do not speak English fluently more than doubling since 1980, more nursing homes and other businesses are exploring the legality of imposing "English only" policies on employees and applicants, according to the law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP, which has offices in seven states.
"In general, an 'English only' rule will be justified by business necessity, and is more likely to pass legal scrutiny if it is needed for an employer to operate its business safely or efficiently," said Amy McAndrew, an employment lawyer at the firm's Philadelphia office.
The matter is especially significant for long-term care facilities, where minorities and other non- English speaking employees have become increasingly common. Operators want to encourage applications from all qualified workers.
So what can a long-term care provider reasonably mandate?
The EEOC offers the following examples of situations in which business necessity would justify an "English only" rule:
• For communication with customers, co-workers, or supervisors who speak only English.
• In emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety.
• For cooperative work assignments in which the "English-only" rule is needed to promote efficiency.
• To enable a supervisor who speaks only English to monitor the performance of an employee whose job duties require communication with co-workers or customers.