Friday, December 07, 2007

Essay 4803

From the Chicago Sun-Times…


In plain English, bill is a bad idea

Every day in the American workplace one hears a mix of languages. Walking through Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, for example, fast-food workers speak Spanish, janitors speak Polish and fashion designers speak French.

But some lawmakers, led by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, want to let companies ban their workers from speaking any language but English, even companies that have no business or safety reason for such a ban. These senators have attached language to a spending bill that would prevent the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from suing employers who require only English to be spoken while in the workplace without a compelling reason. Fortunately, the House Democratic leadership has vowed to block the proposal.

We know English is essential in many jobs, such as 911 and telephone operators. We agree with Alexander that immigrants should learn English, and we have advocated so in these pages. But we don’t think that means people should have to give up speaking their native language in private conversations -- in the hallway, in the bathroom, at the water cooler. In a place like Chicago, second languages are as common as slang. With this kind of restriction, you could forget kibbitzing with the Polish-speaking cleaning ladies or the Russian-speaking delivery men or the Spanish-speaking maintenance men or even trying out your Berlitz-learned French with a co-worker.

“You can’t stop people from speaking Spanish on their lunch hour or in the bathroom or if their job requires it,” Ricardo Meza, regional counsel with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Chicago, told us. “They want to prevent people from speaking any language other than English at all.”

If you do, you could be fired.

This is what happened to two Hispanic employees of a Salvation Army thrift store in Massachusetts. As they sorted clothes, the women spoke Spanish, as they always had for the last five years. Speaking English was hardly a business necessity. Yet their employer -- the charity known for its tireless care of the poor and homeless -- had coldly instituted an English-only mandate. They gave employees a year to learn English, and when the sorting women violated it, they canned them. So the EEOC filed suit against the Salvation Army.

For more than 30 years, federal laws have barred employers from having English-only workplaces. The law can be waived if there is a legitimate business or safety reason for employees to speak only English.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were so upset about the English-only provision they held up a budget vote last month, angering some Democratic leaders. “Bigotry and prejudice and discrimination take the form of people saying don’t use that [Spanish] language,” Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez told us.

Having bilingual workers can be a commercial advantage. For some jobs, it’s essential. Enforcing such a ban in a world-class city like Chicago ignores the plethora of cultures that give our city texture. Besides, it seems so -- well, parochial. Know what we’re saying? Obviously, Alexander doesn’t get the message -- even though it’s in English.

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