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Can You Be Fired for Speaking Spanish at Work?

Can You Be Fired for Speaking Spanish at Work?

Under California law, employers cannot treat employees differently because of their accent or native language.

Under California law, employers cannot treat employees differently because of their accent or native language.

A restaurant employee in Davis, California was recently terminated from her position for a reason that may be surprising: she briefly spoke Spanish to a co-worker. Line cook Francisca Pérez exchanged a few words with waitress Janet Ruelas-Nava about whether a dish was ready to go out at an upscale Italian restaurant, Osteria Fasulo. The owner, Leonardo Fasulo, overheard the conversation, and yelled at the women to stop speaking Spanish. When Pérez told Fasulo that he was discriminating against Mexicans, he told her “This is America. We speak English here.” He then fired her.

According to an experienced California employment discrimination attorney, the decision to terminate Pérez for speaking Spanish at work likely violated her rights under both federal and state law. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of national origin. Requiring employees to speak English at all times may be discriminatory under federal law. However, there are some situations where requiring employees to speak English may be justified by business necessity, such as to allow supervisors to properly monitor job performance, to promote safety in emergency situations, or to promote customer relations when speaking with customers who only speak English.

In California, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) imposes even greater restrictions on employers’ ability to enforce rules about only speaking English in the workplace. As with the Civil Rights Act, California law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their national origin. This includes discrimination based on native language or accent. Under FEHA, employers can only prohibit employees from speaking a language other than English if such a policy serves a business necessity and employees are given notice of the policy. A business necessity exists only if the policy serves an “overriding legitimate business purpose,” is necessary for the safe and efficient operation of the business, and there is no less restrictive available alternative.

Under both the Civil Rights Act and FEHA, it is likely that the actions of Fasulo in firing Pérez were discriminatory. As a California employment discrimination attorney can explain, the interaction between the two women did not implicate safety or customer relations — it was a quick conversation about whether a meal was ready. As a result, terminating Pérez for briefly speaking Spanish in the workplace was likely discrimination based on national origin.

California law imposes strict limits on employers’ ability to demand that employees only speak English in the workplace. As a result, employees who are fired for speaking Spanish — or any other language — at work may have a legal claim against their employer. A skilled California employment discrimination attorney can work with you to determine if you have a case.

At PLBSH, we strongly believe that employees should be free from discrimination and harassment at work. When workers do face these injustices, we are here to help. Contact us today at (800) 435-7542 or to schedule a consultation with a skilled California employment discrimination attorney.

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