What’s wrong with speaking Spanish at work? Nada.


No Spanish allowed. That what some employees of an Albertsons supermarket in San Diego say they were told by their manager, which has led to a lawsuit against the grocery store chain by the feds. According to the complaint filed Thursday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Hispanics working at the store were prohibited from speaking Spanish even on breaks, and even if a customer addressed them en español

In response, an Albertsons spokesperson told the Washington Post that the company does not have a policy that prohibits language usage. “While we cannot comment on this pending litigation specifically, Albertsons does not require that its employees speak English only,” a statement from the chain said. It noted that Albertsons “serves a diverse customer population and encourages employees with foreign language abilities to use those skills to serve its customers.”

{mosads}While this dispute will be settled by the courts, the broader issue of speaking a foreign language in public seems to touch a nerve with some people. 

In fact, people do have the right to speak Spanish, or any other language, while on the job. That’s because, generally speaking, federal law protects people from discrimination based on national origin under Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC has stated that rules requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace violate the law unless the employer can show that they are justified by business necessity. A rule requiring employees to speak English at all times, including breaks, will rarely be justified. English-only work rules are usually only allowed when they are needed for safety reasons. 

The state of California also has laws against English-only policies, and has brought suits against other companies for allegedly violating them. 

People often confuse English-only rules with English-as-an-official-language policies — and there is a difference. The former can be illegal; the latter is the law in most states. The impact of English-official policies varies greatly. In some states, the official language policy is just a designation like the official bird or flower, while in other places there are more guidelines and directives. Even in places where English has been designated the official language, there is much leeway on how they are enforced. For example, California is an English-official state, yet it offers election materials and services in multiple languages, including a Spanish-language DMV website.  

It might surprise people to know that the debate over speaking English predates the rise of Donald Trump (the allegations in the Albertsons case date back to 2012). Some Americans just don’t like it when they hear people speaking another language in public around them, and the ensuing ugly incidents have been well-documented on social media

So why such anger at people speaking Spanish, or any other foreign language, in public? Speaking whatever language we choose is one of the hallmarks of our democratic, free society. For anyone who assumes that all people have this right, look at China, which has rigidly enforced its one-language policy, to the detriment of its national minorities. 

And those concerned that Latino immigrants are not learning English should know that new arrivals from Latin America follow the same assimilation patterns as past waves of immigrants. An April report by the Pew Center confirms this; most Hispanic parents speak Spanish to their children, but this is less the case in later immigrant generations. The longer that Latino immigrants are in this country, the more the use of English rises and the use of Spanish falls. 

The fact is that being bilingual is an asset in the workplace. Bilingual employees can earn higher wages, have more options in their career, and serve customers better. In places like California (home to 15 million Latinos), or Texas (home to about 11 million Latinos) smart employers will hire Spanish-speakers to serve their diverse customer base. More corporations and companies are recognizing this, from the New York Times, which launched a Spanish-language site in 2016, to Albertsons — which is part of a group that owns Amigos, a chain “created with Hispanic shoppers in mind.”  

Our country gives people the freedom and right to speak whatever language they choose. Prohibiting or criticizing the use of a foreign language is as wrong as it is un-American. 

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.

Tags Albertsons Donald Trump English-only movement Hispanic Language Latino Multilingualism

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