After a sheet metal plant in Connecticut ordered its employees to speak only English on the job because of safety concerns, five Spanish-speaking workers decided to take the company to court.
The employees, who are legal immigrants, say the rule amounts to discrimination and actually makes the workplace more hazardous.
"I can think of no good reason for them to institute this policy," said Steven Jacobs, the lawyer for the workers who are suing GC Industries in Deep River, Conn. "It's offensive to people who speak Spanish and is potentially dangerous. It inhibits them from communicating in their native tongue in situations that could put people at risk."
According to the lawsuit, the plant's "Common Language Policy" was suddenly posted in fliers on the factory bulletin board on March 15, 2006.
The notice stated that "there be one language spoken during working time at all plants and facilities of GCI, and that language is English." It specified that the policy would be enforced when "any employee is 'on the clock,'" and said violations could lead to warnings and dismissal.
Court documents show that the announcement, which was also posted in Spanish, was signed by company president Thomas Arbella.
But Andres Moran, who speaks fluent English, said he and his four co-plaintiffs needed to communicate in Spanish in order to do their jobs.
"Not everybody over there is fluent in English," said Moran, 22. "How would I be able to talk to them? I wouldn't be able to communicate with them. That was my argument. ... I kept on speaking Spanish to whoever understood my language."
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has discouraged such blanket English-only mandates at work, unless they are justified as a business necessity.
"A rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times on the job may violate Title VII, unless an employer shows it is necessary for conducting business," the EEOC says on its Web site. "If an employer believes the English-only rule is critical for business purposes, employees have to be told when they must speak English and the consequences for violating the rule."
A company must also specify why the use of another language hurts or interferes with productivity and efficiency, according to the EEOC.
Moran said that although the rest of the GCI employees "kind of shut their mouth and didn't speak at all," he and the other four continued to use Spanish with their coworkers who weren't well-versed in English.
The five plaintiffs received a second warning to stop speaking Spanish while at work — or face dismissal. Executives told the workers that they could institute any policy they liked because GCI is a private company.
"I felt like I was a slave, basically," said Moran. "I felt discriminated against, violated. I didn't know what to do."
Moran was later transferred from being a packer — which involves packaging sheets of metal — to the more strenuous and less desirable job of hanger, which requires workers to hang heavy sections of metal on racks on the assembly line.
Despite the fact that it was harder work, he said, he was paid the same $9 an hour.
When he persisted in speaking Spanish and asking for his old job back, Moran was laid off after about nine months with the company, he said.
"Richard [Gordon, GCI general manager] took me outside and said, 'We don't need you working anymore. We're not getting as much production,'" Moran remembered. "The next week, they hired somebody else."
A woman answering the phone at GCI declined to give her name or comment on the legal battle.
The five workers filed their discrimination lawsuit against GCI last week, and are seeking compensatory and punitive damages in the amount of $100,000 per employee, according to Jacobs. The civil suit could ultimately go before a jury.
Jacobs said he also filed a discrimination complaint on behalf of the men with the EEOC and the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights in late spring of 2006.
The plaintiffs contend that GCI hasn't demonstrated how speaking Spanish has had a negative impact on business. To the contrary, they argue, the common-language rule could actually hurt workflow, since so many employees have limited knowledge of English. Most of the GCI employees are of Hispanic origin, according to Jacobs.
"The company claims that the reason for the rule was to enhance the safety of the workplace," he said. "I find that excuse hard to accept when 75 to 80 percent of the workforce speaks Spanish."
He and his clients remain bewildered about what triggered the change in policy.
"I still don't know why they did it," Moran said. "Nobody complained. Nobody cared. ... They're still trying to tell people not to speak Spanish."