Workplace English-Only Rules

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 What is Employment Law?

Employment law is the term that is used to describe a broad range of legal issues which arise related to:

  • Employees;
  • Employers; and
  • Safety conditions in the workplace.

For example, some employment laws may apply in cases of employment discrimination while other employment laws may be used for guidance when drafting employee handbooks or company policies.

Employment laws are intended to protect all individuals who are part of the workforce, which may include:

  • Establishing protections for employees involved in disputes with:
    • colleagues;
    • employers; or
    • a company;
  • Ensuring that the business entity does not discriminate against prospective job candidates or
  • current employees during the following processes:
    • interviewing;
    • hiring;
    • promoting; or
    • terminating;
  • Granting certain rights to individuals who are self-employed or who are considered to be independent contractors;
  • Ensuring that volunteers and interns do not face:
    • sexual harassment;
    • discrimination; or
    • retaliation; and
  • Numerous other topics which may affect employment rights.

It is important to note that employment laws vary widely by jurisdiction. Because of this, the rights which one state may protect may not be available in another state.

It is also important to note that certain issues, such as pregnancy leave, may be governed by both state law and federal law.

What Are Some Different Types of Employment?

There are two main categories that workers can be classified into including employees and independent contractors. Examples of different types of employment may include:

  • Full-time or part-time employment;
  • Seasonal or temporary employment;
  • Independent contractors;
  • Freelancers;
  • Consultants; and
  • Temporary workers, which differ from temporary employees.

It is important for both an employer and an employee to be aware of what category of employee they fall into. This is due to the fact that the category of employee will govern:

  • Which benefits they will receive;
  • The rights the individual has as an employee; and
  • Whether they qualify for certain perks.

The classification of the employee may also affect what type of tasks an employer is legally obligated to do, such as withholding income taxes.

What is the Difference Between an Employee and an Independent Contractor?

As previously noted, certain employment law issues can be governed by both federal statutes and state statutes. One of these issues is determining the difference between employees and independent contractors.

The laws governing this issue will outline the legal requirements which employers will have to follow for each category of employee. Generally, the most important factor that separates employees and independent contractors is how much control the worker exercises over their work.

For example, if the worker can control the work they do as well as the method used to complete the work, that worker is more likely to be categorized as an independent contractor. In contrast, if the employer has total control over which tasks the worker performs as well as the process they must use to perform it, the worker will most likely be considered an employee.

If an individual is categorized as an employee, their employer will be required to comply with specific federal regulations for employees, which includes withholding income taxes from the employee’s paycheck as well as ensuring that the employee is paid in accordance with minimum wage standards. In contrast, employers are not required to provide employee benefits or to withhold income taxes from a paycheck for an independent contractor.

If an individual is an independent contractor, they will be responsible for overseeing these issues themselves. Another distinction is that employers may be held liable for the actions of their employees but they typically cannot be held liable for the actions of independent contractors.

What Are My Legal Rights as an Employee?

An employee enjoys many legal rights, including:

  • The right to privacy;
  • The right to be free from discrimination; and
  • The right to fair compensation.

Essentially, if a right is provided under an employment law, it will most likely apply and may be used to protect employees. Numerous rights provided by employment laws are related to the well-being and safety of employee conditions in the workplace.

For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces laws and policies which protect employees from dangerous conditions as well as unsafe work environments. An employee may also have other legal rights which stem from employment contracts.

Therefore, individual employees may be granted additional legal rights provided in their employment contract.

Is an Employer Allowed to Ask About Language Skills When I Apply for a Job?

Yes, an employer is permitted to ask about an individual’s language skills when they apply for a job if their fluency to speak or write in a certain language is related to the job they are applying for. Prior to becoming an employee, however, an employer is not permitted to ask questions regarding:

  • The individual’s native language;
  • The language spoken in the individual’s home; and
  • How the individual learned to read, write, or speak a specific language.

During the interview process, an employer is permitted to ask how many languages the individual speaks fluently. Any questions regarding how the individual became fluent or what language they grew up speaking are not permitted.

Can My Employer Require Me to Speak English-Only at Work?

Yes, an employer may require an individual to speak only English at work, but there are limitations. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) allows employers to enact English-only rules in the workplace if the requirement is business related.

In addition, an employee is not required to adhere to an English-only rule during the employee break period. Because there is a connection between national origin and language, employers are often advised not to require unnecessary language rules.

The reasoning for this is because national origin is a protected class and, therefore, an employer is not permitted to discriminate against an employee because of this class. It is easy for a discrimination against a language to result in discrimination against a certain national origin.

How Can a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification Apply in this Situation?

A bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) is a defense that an employer may use in response to a discrimination claim. To use a BFOQ, an employer is required to prove that barring non-English languages in the workplace is a necessary step for the business to function.

For example, a retail store which sells wares to customers who speak English may require that the sales people exclusively speak English. Telemarketers who answer phone calls from customers who speak English are required to be able to speak English in order to understand and respond to customer complaints.

Are There Laws Against English-Only Rules in the Workplace?

The EEOC provides that an employer is in violation of the law if they require English-only rules. However, it may be justified, as previously discussed, if it is based on a business necessity.

As noted above, if an individual holds certain positions, speaking English may be a bona fide occupational qualification. Employment positions may that BFOQs may apply to include:

  • Telemarketers;
  • Customer service representatives;
  • Teachers; and
  • Other positions.

It is important to note that employment discrimination is a serious issue. Numerous classes are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which includes but is not limited to:

It is important for an individual to review their local laws, as individual states have enacted laws that relate to equal opportunity rights in the workplace.

Do I Need an Employment Lawyer?

If you believe your employer has violated your rights or if you have questions regarding your company’s language policies, it is important to consult with a discrimination lawyers as soon as possible. Your attorney will be able to inform you of your rights as an employee, advise you of the best course of action, and represent you in court.

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