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Clinton Administration Argues Against English-Only Rules

June 3, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Clinton administration lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to make it harder for employers to require workers to speak only English on the job.

In a brief the high court requested in March, Justice Department lawyers this week criticized a federal appeals court ruling that let a California company impose an English-only rule against Spanish-speaking employees.

Such rules are increasingly common nationwide. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has about 120 cases in which 67 different employers are accused of unfairly imposing English-only rules, the government’s brief said.

″The court of appeals’ decision is wrong″ and makes it too difficult for ethnic minorities to challenge English-only rules that aren’t justified by any business necessity, the government lawyers argued.

″Depriving persons of the opportunity to use the language in which they communicate most effectively cannot be characterized as a de minimus (minor) injury,″ they said.

The court has not yet said whether it will review an appeal by two bilingual workers who said their employer illegally discriminated against them by imposing an English-only rule.

Now that the government’s requested brief has been filed, word from the court could come within the next few weeks.

Priscilla Garcia and Marciela Buitrago, together with their labor union, sued the Spun Steak Co. in South San Francisco in 1991, alleging that its English-only rule violated a federal law barring on-the-job bias based on national origin.

Spun Steak runs a meat-processing plant where the two women worked on a production line. The company employs more than 30 people. Most of them, like Garcia and Buitrago, are Hispanic and bilingual.

The company’s English-only rule was not imposed until late 1990, after Garcia and Buitrago were accused of making derogatory, racist remarks in Spanish and English about two co-workers.

A federal judge ruled that Spun Steak’s English-only rule violated the federal anti-bias law. Calling the rule too broad and unnecessary, the judge likened it to ″hitting a flea with a sledge hammer.″

The judge relied on guidelines established by the EEOC treating English- only rules in employment as presumptively illegal.

The guidelines state that barring employees from speaking their primary language may create ″an atmosphere of inferiority, isolation and intimidation based on national origin which could result in a discriminatory working environment.″

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the commission guidelines in ruling for Spun Steak by a 2-1 vote.

The appeals court said the English-only rule might be illegal if imposed against employees who speak little or no English.

The 9th Circuit court’s ruling is binding law in nine Western states - California, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Government lawyers said about one-third of all U.S. residents who speak a language other than English at home live in those states.

The case is Garcia vs. Spun Steak Co., 93-1222.

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