In 2005 the Salvation Army fired two long-time employees of its Framingham, MA, thrift store for speaking Spanish, not English, on the job.
The Salvation Army’s long-standing English-only requirement is articulated in its employee handbook, available only in English. It states that workers must use English “when speaking to any other employee, beneficiary, customer or to a supervisor.” But the rule wasn’t enforced until 2004, five years after Dolores Escorbor and Maria Del Carmen Pedromo had begun working at the Framingham store.
The Salvation Army gave the two Hispanic women a year to bring their English up to speed, and when that didn’t happen, they were sacked. Now the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stepped in to sue the Christian charity, whose mission statement calls for it to meet human needs “without discrimination,” for discrimination.
The Salvation Army denies breaking the law, insisting that its English-only policy “serve[s] only to protect the welfare and safety of our employees and those whom we serve in fulfillment of our mission.”
According to the 2000 Census, about 28% of Framingham's residents speak a language other than English at home, and 18% of them speak Spanish or Portuguese. Furthermore, 77.4% of the Spanish speakers also speak English well or very well, as do 56% of the Portuguese speakers. But to make sure that everyone gets the message, the Army said it in Spanish as well: its employees must speak English for “la protección del bienestar y la seguridad tanto de nuestros empleados como de aquellos a quienes servimos en el cumplimiento de nuestra misión.”
Exactly how speaking English protects the welfare and safety of two women whose job is sorting clothes for a thrift shop isn’t entirely clear. Plus the Salvation Army not only defends its American English-only policy in Spanish, it's also busy saving souls in languages other than English all over the world. For example, you can put a yen on the drum at the busy Shinjuku train station in Tokyo.
And the Mexican branch of the Salvation Army, which began activities as el Ejército de Salvación in 1937, will also gladly take your pesos.
Not only does the Salvation Army actively use languages other than English abroad, it also explicitly tolerates those languages back in the USA. The Army’s handbook for American employees allows them to communicate with clients and customers in any language necessary, or to help other employees and supervisors with translation into English. Employees are also allowed to speak their native language on breaks, at meals, and when they’re not working. On top of that, the English-only rule doesn’t actually require employees to speak English like a native. Rather, they must use it in required situations “to the best of [their] abilities.”
The women who were fired in Framingham spoke some English, just not enough, in the eyes of their bosses, to ensure their salvation or the health and safety of others. Then again, maybe the managers of the Framingham store just worried that their Spanish-speaking employees were actually making fun of them.
Nonanglophone workers often laugh or giggle when speaking their native language, probably because they’re more relaxed than when they’re using English, or they whisper so as not to make others feel uncomfortable or left out. But monolingual English-speaking supervisors and employees frequently complain that such workers hide behind a foreign language to criticize or ridicule the Anglos. Sometimes that paranoia turns out to be justified – but that’s not surprising, since even English-speaking employees have been known to make fun of management surreptitiously.
A 2003 federal court decision in a case where Salvation Army managers thought Spanish-speaking employees were taking advantage of a supervisor upheld the charity’s English-language rule. But that’s irrelevant to the Framingham case where, according to the EEOC, these particular employees, who weren’t dealing with the public, “were told they needed to learn English, even though learning English was not a part of the written English language policy and was unrelated to the jobs they had been performing since 1999.”
Even though the EEOC seems to have good reason to intercede on behalf of the fired employees, English-firsters from Lou Dobbs to Tom Tancredo are characterizing its lawsuit as a politically-correct attack on a well-respected charity by a government agency out of control, and conservative bloggers have begun questioning whether the women who were fired were even American citizens, as if antidiscrimination laws don’t apply to resident aliens or to undocumented workers.
For these critics of the EEOC, lack of English constitutes anything from prima facie evidence of statelessness to overt contempt for America, whose principles and values they seem to think can only be understood in the language in which they were first enunciated, the English language of the Salvation Army workplace.
Paradoxically, the Salvation Army and its English-only supporters have no trouble justifying their faith-based mission in the name of sacred scriptures that have been translated from another language into English, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Malayan, Latvian, Swedish, or any other language spoken in a country where the Salvation Army sends its bell ringers to raise money.
[There’s lots to buy in the parking lot of the Salvation Army Thrift Shop in Framingham, but shoppers will only be served in English]