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ALJ Nixes Hospital's Broad English-Only Rule Under NLRA

    Client Alerts
  • April 17, 2015
For years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has cautioned employers against adopting strict English-only rules in the workplace. The EEOC considers such policies to constitute race and/or national origin discrimination when applied in situations that do not involve business necessity. In practice, this means that employers can enforce English-only rules for customer interactions, or for business situations where clear communications are required, such as safety or production meetings. However, employers’ attempts to enforce these rules during non-working time, or in situations involving casual conversations among employees can result in Title VII claims.

Last month, a federal Administrative Law Judge gave employees another legal avenue to attack broad English-only policies. She concluded that a hospital’s handbook policy implementing such a rule violates employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. In Valley Health Sys., LLC, the employer required that employees only use English whenever conducting business with one another, including situations where no patients are present. The ALJ stated that this was the first case in which employees had challenged such policies under Section 7.

The hospital contended that the English-only policy followed the EEOC’s business necessity rule, and therefore complied with Section 7. The ALJ disagreed, characterizing the policy as vague and overbroad. Prohibiting any two employees from discussing any business issue in their native language at any time during the work day inhibited communications about terms and conditions of work. The judge speculated that the hospital’s rule did not meet the EEOC’s test for such policies, and could not serve as a shield to claims of violation of the NLRA.

In recent years, many employers have abandoned English-only policies. For some employers, the rules were adopted because the employer feared that employees were gossiping or mocking supervisors or co-workers. These concerns likely do not merit rules that subject the employer to multiple legal claims. In certain workplaces, employers can define specific situations where only English can be spoken for clear business reasons. In most cases, however, these policies should be the exception and not the rule.