Thursday, May 19, 2016

Leon's Frozen Custard and English-Only Policy Causes Big Stir

A popular Milwaukee landmark that has been operating in the area since 1942 has been under fire over the last day because of their "English-only policy" whereby the owner of the company, Ron Scheider, requires his employees to only speak English to customers.  While Schneider claims an employee would not be fired for speaking another language (i.e., mostly and namely, Spanish) to a customer, he did say that, "...they could expect a chat with the boss."

Obviously a rule like this is likely to spark a call for legal action and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) has called on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") to launch a federal investigation into the “English only” rule.

Does this rule violate federal law?  It depends on who you ask.  While Title VII does not expressly prohibit this type of rule, the EEOC has long held that such a policy, "unless they are reasonable necessary to the operation of the business" is violative of Title VII.  It does not appear that Schneider's rule is reasonably necessary to the operation of the business as some of his employees speak Spanish and many of his customers prefer to speak Spanish as well, as mentioned in the linked Washington Post article.  It appears the policy is more of a preference of Schneiders than anything else.  The EEOC has provided some guidance for English-only policies:
  • A rule requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace at all times, including breaks and lunch time, will rarely be justified.
  • An English-only rule should be limited to the circumstances in which it is needed for the employer to operate safely or efficiently.
  • Circumstances in which an English-only rule may be justified include: communications with customers or coworkers who only speak English; emergencies or other situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety; cooperative work assignments in which the English-only rule is needed to promote efficiency.
  • Even if there is a need for an English-only rule, an employer may not take disciplinary action against an employee for violating the rule unless the employer has notified workers about the rule and the consequences of violating it.
It would appear Schneider's policy violates the second, third, and fourth bullet points of the EEOC's guidance.   However, some federal courts have rejected the EEOC's guidance and the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to address the issue.  The American Bar Association has a nice article discussing federal court treatment of English-only policies and I have previously blogged about this topic here