Speaking Out : An ACLU Attorney Warns That Supreme Court Decision May Send a Mistaken Message to Employers That They Have Carte Blanche to Impose Language Restrictions.

Robin Toma, 32, has been a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union for six years. He specializes in cases involving language-rights issues and has filed court challenges against employers who establish workplace rules that prohibit employees from speaking languages other than English. In 1989, he filed a lawsuit against Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center, challenging that facility’s English-only rule. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of assistant head nurse Aida Dimaranan, who worked in the maternity ward and spoke English and Tagalog, was settled out of court in 1992. Toma lives in Silver Lake. He was interviewed by Karen E. Klein.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently refused to hear an appeal of a ruling that said English-only rules do not discriminate against bilingual em ployees. That means that in the future it will be a lot easier for employers to impose English-only rules on employees who are fully bilingual and it will be harder, much harder, to challenge them.

I’m afraid the court’s decision may send a mistaken message to employers that they have carte blanche to impose language restrictions. I believe employers should be very careful in recognizing the limits of this ruling. Where there are employees with limited English skills, the employer has to show that there is a business necessity for imposing an English-only rule.

When there is a business necessity, when communication in English is an essential element of work performance, there is no reason to challenge that. For instance, no emergency room employee is going to demand the right to speak Spanish while working on a patient in critical condition. No employee is going to ask to speak Tagalog to English-speaking customers in a store. That just would not make sense.

What we’re challenging is blanket English-only rules--rules that prohibit employees from speaking their native languages at break times, lunchtimes, etc. We all know that when we’re at work we don’t do four hours of work straight without speaking even a word of a personal nature.

If you pass someone in the hall and he says, “Hola, que tal,” you want to say, “Bien.” People are getting written up for that. Some folks might lose their jobs over something like that.

In the case that I brought on behalf of a Filipino nurse, my client was speaking Tagalog on the phone to her mother about giving medicine to her child at home. Her mother didn’t speak English very well so she really needed to communicate in Tagalog. Another employee heard her and said, “I’m going to report you!” It makes for a very oppressive work atmosphere.

I have found that in workplaces where English-only rules are imposed there is always a core problem of animosity and mistrust among the employees or between manager and employee, and the use of native languages only exacerbates it. Usually, language becomes the external weapon in these conflicts but the conflict and the disunity among employees existed before language was singled out.

The ones who complain typically are English-speaking employees who hear other employees speaking in a native language and feel excluded or feel like other employees are being favored if the manager also speaks another language. Sometimes, employees believe their co-workers are making fun of them in another language.

It’s easy for management to outlaw the speaking of native languages and think the problem will go away. But the complete elimination of native languages creates more animosity and anger and in the long run it does not improve the work environment.

It’s hard to deny that bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment is behind many of these rules. Many people have mistaken ideas about immigrants and they believe that immigrants don’t want to learn English. That is absolutely incorrect. Studies show that today’s immigrants learn English as quickly as or even faster than other immigrant groups have in the past.

I would counsel employees who are non-native English speakers to stand up for their rights at their workplaces. If employees are limited-English speakers, this ruling does not mean they can be forced to speak English all the time. It applies only to fully bilingual workers. Contact a civil rights organization if attempts at resolving the problem internally are ineffective.

Immigrants should not merely accept that the speaking of their native language has no importance under our laws because that is not true.