Salvation Army Sued Over 'English-Only' Rule

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed suit against the Salvation Army seeking to overturn a policy requiring employees to speak English on the job, the commission announced.

Claiming the policy discriminates against minority employees on the basis of national origin, the commission said Wednesday it is seeking a court order requiring the Salvation Army to eliminate the policy and take steps to mitigate the effects it has had on past employees. A Salvation Army spokeswoman said the organization has not enforced the policy for the last nine months and said she was unaware of the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

The suit was filed on behalf of four women, Julieta Lainez, Adela Rodriguez, Esther Barillas and Jennie Rosado, who are employees at the Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Center in downtown Los Angeles.

All except Rosado work in the sorting room sifting through donated clothing and other items. Rosado, a former sorting room employee, is no longer employed with the organization.

According to the commission's complaint, the Salvation Army adopted a policy in July, 1977, requiring employees to speak English during all working hours except during lunch, midday breaks and before and after work.

According to Juliette Sarmiento, attorney for the U.S. commission, Salvation Army officials argued during an initial inquiry that allowing employees to speak a language other than English "significantly impaired" the organization's ability to prevent errors and monitor improper behavior.

Federal regulations permit English-only regulations, but only in cases where an employer has demonstrated that the policy is necessary to the safe and efficient operation of the business, Sarmiento said.

"Our position is the English language policy the Salvation Army maintains does not fulfill these requirements," she said.

Judith Keeler, district director in Los Angeles of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said English-only rules "tend to disadvantage an individual's employment opportunities and create a discriminatory working environment."

Maj. Evelyn Hunter, director of legal services for the Salvation Army in Los Angeles, said she did not know the specifics of the English-only policy but believed that the policy had been rescinded at least nine months ago.

"There had been a rule regarding language, and we now do not have a rule. It was rescinded, so I'm very surprised that there is any kind of a lawsuit," she said.

Hunter said she could not say precisely when the policy was rescinded, why it was rescinded nor why it had originally been adopted. She said no one else at the organization had any further information about the policy.

Sarmiento said it was her belief that the Salvation Army had not rescinded the policy, but had simply notified EEOC lawyers that it was no longer enforcing it.

"What we're saying is it makes no difference whether they're enforcing it or not, it's still there," Sarmiento said. "As long as it's on the books, it can be enforced any time."

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