The state of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing recently sued clothing retailer Forever 21, alleging that it violated state civil rights laws and discriminated against employees who speak Spanish. The lawsuit was filed in San Francisco Superior Court.

The lawsuit alleges that the store’s English-only policy amounts to discrimination. The lawsuit claims that the store prohibited employees from speaking in any language other than English, even when talking to each other during breaks, and when speaking to Spanish-speaking customers. The lawsuit also claims that when three Spanish-speaking employees complained about the policy, they were treated poorly by management and their work hours were reduced.

Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, a California law, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees based on their national origin. Employers are also not allowed to adopt English-only rules, unless there is a clear business necessity.

The lawsuit originated in 2015, when three employees asked a community legal aid group for help. An attorney with the group asked the store about the policy, and received a denial that the policy existed. The company refused to comment on the case because of the litigation, but said that it is committed to diversity and does not have any policies about the language spoken in its stores.

The lawsuit is seeking damages for the employees who complained about the policy. It is also seeking a court order to stop the discriminatory policy.

Under both federal and state laws currently in place, employers are not allowed to discriminate against employees based on their national origin. National origin discrimination means treating employees or applicants differently because they are from a particular part of the U.S. or part of the world, or because they appear to be of a certain ethnic background, or because of their background. National origin discrimination can also involve treating applicants or employees differently because they are married to or associated with a person of a certain national origin.

In addition to not being allowed to discriminate against certain individuals in the workplace because of their national origin, employers cannot enforce employment practices or policies that apply to everyone, regardless of national origin, if the policy or practice has a negative impact on people of a certain national origin and is not job-related or necessary to the operation of the business.

Specifically, many employers attempt to implement a rule that requires all employees speak in English, such as Forever 21 allegedly did. English-only rules are only allowed if they are necessary to ensure the safe or efficient operation of the employer’s business, and if they are put in place for nondiscriminatory reason. For example, if an air traffic control room had an English-only policy that should be allowed because that type of policy may be necessary to ensure the safety of the people onboard the airplanes. A clothing store probably can operate efficiently and safely even if some of the employees speak to customers or each other in other languages. Employees are also forbidden from basing an employment decision on an employee’s foreign accent, unless the accent seriously interferes with the employee’s job performance.

Unfortunately, many companies choose to illegally discriminate against employees based on their national origin. At Liberty Law, Micha Star Liberty believes that any employees who believe they have experienced national origin discrimination should speak with an attorney. If you are in the Oakland-San Francisco area and you have experienced discrimination, call Micha Star Liberty, Oakland national origin discrimination attorney at 510-645-1000. We can help. Call today to learn more or to schedule a free consultation.

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