Republicans in Congress want to stop the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from taking action against employers who make their workers speak English, according to the Associated Press.
A group of English-only Republican senators was outraged by the announcement that the EEOC is suing the Salvation Army for firing two clothing sorters in its Framingham, Massachusetts thrift shop because the Spanish-speaking immigrants were unable to comply with the organization’s English-only policy.
But Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who objected violently when a CD of the “Star-Spangled Banner” was released in Spanish last year, wants to prevent the government’s antidiscrimination agency from discriminating against faith-based groups who make their employees speak English.
“Did the EEOC go after the Catholic church when it made priests say the mass in English instead of Latin after Vatican II?” Alexander asked reporters last week, adding, “No it did not. So why can’t the Salvation Army do the same thing?”
Alexander also pointed out that, like the Catholic church and the Salvation Army, the EEOC conducts all of its business in English, not Spanish or Vietnamese. “Quod erat demonstrandum,” he concluded. To which independent but secretly Republican Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut added, "Dayenu."
One of the EEOC’s mandates is to reduce discrimination based on national origin, which is prohibited by the 1965 Civil Rights Act. Language discrimination comes under the heading of national origin discrimination.
According to the EEOC, employers may not discriminate on the basis of a worker’s accent or English fluency, and an English-only rule may be instituted only “if it is needed to promote the safe or efficient operation of the employer's business.”
Employers may require English to deal with customers who speak only English, when assigning duties involving both bilingual employees and those speaking only English, or to ensure that employees follow directions in an emergency.
An English-only rule must also be task-related rather than universal: employees can use any language they want when they’re on breaks, when they’re making personal phone calls, or when their tasks aren’t language dependent – for example, when they’re in a back room sorting used clothing donated for resale or shipment to third world countries.
But the senators can relax. The EEOC files very few language-related lawsuits. Mostly the agency investigates complaints and either dismisses them as groundless or, if they have merit, gets the employer to settle. For example, the captain of a fishing vessel was fined $31,000 for requiring his crew to speak English during breaks, a rule that he considered so important for maintaining discipline on his container ship that he enforced it at knife-point. But the Commission found no merit to employees' complaints that the captain was obsessed with the pursuit of a giant white whale who had eaten a quart of his favorite strawberries that had fallen overboad.
In another case, after a five year battle, employees at an Arizona drive-in recently won an EEOC settlement allowing them to speak Navaho on their breaks, though they agreed to speak English to customers in the diner, even though almost all of those customers spoke only Navaho.
Rolando Racancoj, of Pearland, Texas, who was fired for using Spanish on the job, stares glumly at a bank notice informing him that his former employer has stopped payment on his last paycheck.
Nonetheless, the English-only senators insist that the EEOC drop all of its anti-English activity because most Americans are so uncomfortable with the notion of foreign languages that they can’t even learn them in high school. Now these foreign languages have followed them even though they’ve left school, and monolingual Americans are objecting to foreign language in the workplace as well.
One anxious correspondent calling herself “English Please” writes to Newsday’s business advice columnist, “Dear Carrie,” about the problems she’s encountered with Spanish-speaking co-workers: “I just think it is horribly rude for them to speak Spanish among us. And I think the company should put a stop to it.”
Workers sometimes worry that their foreign-language colleagues are making fun of them when they converse in their own language, but Dear Carrie reminds “English Please” that it’s illegal for any company to stamp out language use unless English is a business necessity. Instead, she advises “English Please” to tell her co-workers how uncomfortable they make her feel. And if that doesn’t help, to politely suggest that maybe they should just go back where they came from.
If Lamar Alexander gets his way, employees, even employees of the EEOC, will only be able to make fun of one another in English. If they can’t do that in the language of the land where they live, then maybe they should go back where they came from. Of course, English isn’t native to the United States. It’s an immigrant language, just like Spanish, Vietnamese, and Polish. But if a Cherokee speaker told Lamar Alexander to go back where he came from, he’d probably complain to the EEOC. Or if he felt that a government agency wasn’t patriotic enough to enforce the law, maybe he’d just call out the cavalry.
“Indian Fighters,” by Frederick Remington, 1907