A year ago, workers for a Delta Airlines contractor at LAX said they were given a strict order: Speak English or don't speak at all.
The employees for Gate Gourmet, which provides janitorial services to Delta Airlines at LAX, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Thursday by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund claiming harassment by management if workers did not abide by the "English only" language policy.
One worker, Maria Martinez, received a written warning two months ago about her continued use of Spanish, said Martha Gomez, staff attorney with MALDEF. She said there isn't a need for workers to speak English, as they don't interact with customers.
Last May, according to the lawsuit, management implemented the language restriction, which prevented workers from speaking Spanish during the swing shift -- from 2 to 11 p.m. While Gate Gourmet hasn't clearly communicated consequences of breaking the policy, workers are "constantly under threat and scrutiny," Gomez said.
Gate Gourmet did not impose any language restrictions on its morning or night shift employees, according to the lawsuit.
When an airplane comes in, workers restock pillows, take out the trash, clean the kitchen and make sure everything is clean before moving on to another airplane.
Most of the 14 workers in the lawsuit have been cleaning airplanes for about 10 years, and using Spanish with no problem, Gomez added.
While declining to comment on the lawsuit, Gate Gourmet in a statement denied that it required its employees to speak only English.
"Gate Gourmet does not have an English-only rule. We onboard, train, and communicate with our diverse workforce in multiple languages, and certainly in both English and Spanish in Los Angeles," the company's statement read. "We ensure that our people receive the information they need, including all policies and procedures, in either English or Spanish. Gate Gourmet takes pride in our diverse workplace and in our ability to integrate non-English speakers into our workforce."
According to the lawsuit, bilingual employees are prohibited from speaking in Spanish to employees who speak only Spanish. The suit's plaintiffs all speak Spanish as their native language and most either don't speak English or have limited proficiency in English, according to the complaint.
The suit seeks damages on claims of unlawful workplace language policy, national origin discrimination, harassment, failure to prevent discrimination and unfair and unlawful business practices.