A battle is being waged across the United States between employers who try to enforce English-only rules at work and equal opportunity advocates who say forcing workers to speak English, if it is not their native language, amounts to discrimination.
The latest case involves Sephora, which operates a chain of stylish cosmetic shops. Four Hispanic women who were employed in its flagship outlet at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan claim unfair treatment by the company, because it allegedly barred them from speaking Spanish at work, even during lunch. While the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) which has filed a lawsuit against Sephora on their behalf, argues that forcing non-native speakers to use English is illegal under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, others disagree.
KC McAlpin, director of ProEnglish, a lobbying group said: "We call it their 'undeclared war on English'." The number of similar lawsuits is growing. One in five residents of the United States now speak languages other than English in their homes. Last year, the EEOC tracked more than two hundred cases of alleged language discrimination at work.
The four Sephora women claim that when the branch closed in 2002, they were not offered jobs at other outlets of the retailer. They also say they were ridiculed by managers. "I would feel really bad and discriminated against," says Mariela Del Rosario, one of the women filing the suit. Raechel Adams, a lawyer for the EEOC, who is overseeing the Sephora suit said: "Hispanics in particular were targeted here.
"People working in Sephora, in Rockefeller Center in particular, who spoke other languages were allowed to [do so] all day long," she said.
The company said in a statement that it did not: "have, and never have had, an 'English-only' rule in our workplace." Elsewhere, four women are suing a restaurant in Arizona, that has Navajo Indian staff and customers, after they were fired for refusing to sign an 'English-only' agreement.