Employing Non-English Speakers
Immigrants made up close to 17 percent of the U.S. civilian labor force in 2015, according to the Migration Policy Institute. It’s a rising trend: In 1970, it was only 5 percent. Many of these workers enter the workforce with little or no English-language proficiency.
In California, several requirements obligate employers under certain circumstances to post notices in foreign languages. The Fair Employment and Housing Act requires that employers who use a significant number of non-English-speaking individuals at any facility or establishment post excerpts of the act in appropriate foreign languages. A significant number is regarded as no less than 10 percent of the workforce.
Federal law requires employers to post information in foreign languages. Under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, if a significant portion of employees are not literate in English, employers covered by the act must post a notice in the language that most of the employees can read. This applies to private-sector employers who have 50 or more employees in 20 or more workweeks who are engaged in commerce or any industry or activity that affects commerce.
Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations also need to be provided in languages employees understand. Employment attorneys advise that documents like employee handbooks should be provided in foreign languages if there are a significant number of non-English-speaking employees. This is mainly so that all employees can receive training in a language that can be understood. Also, you want your workplace to be protected from claims that your policies were not understood.
What are English-only rules?
While you may think that employees who need to interact with customers should be English speakers, you may be surprised to know that the federal government has sued an employer for having such a policy.
English-only policies are legal only in very limited circumstances, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. These include the safe and effective performance of a job and the successful operation of the employer’s business.
A regional Chicago attorney said: “Our experience at the EEOC has been that so-called English-only rules and requirements of English fluency are often employed to make what is really discrimination appear acceptable … but superficial appearances are not fooling anyone.”
That puts the onus on you to prove that the ability to speak English is essential to performing the job at hand. This doesn’t mean that companywide English-only policies are fine if a certain segment of your workforce doesn’t need to speak English. Such policies must be imposed only on those whose jobs are dependent on the ability to speak English.
So if customer service reps need to be able to speak English, it’s not necessarily legal to impose the same English-speaking rule on warehouse employees who have no contact with customers.
The English-only rule has been a hot-button issue for a long time. Of course, there are hard reasons to require employees to be able to communicate with their employer — especially with regard to safety and basic effectiveness of job performance. No one wants an employee to lose a hand in a machine because the explanation wasn’t understood.
If you are interested in supporting employer-driven English as a second language, you may be able to turn to other funding sources, such as states that make available ESL customized to meet business needs. Such customized programs offer enough English to get jobs done safely and efficiently — and lead to increased productivity, say employers.
Let us know if you have foreign-language issues in your company and we’ll help you with finding resources.