EEOC, Salvation Army Resolve English-Only Firing

By Rita Zeidner Nov 24, 2008
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The Salvation Army, as part of a settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), has agreed to end its policy of requiring its thrift store workers to be fluent in English.

A consent decree, signed Nov. 6, puts to rest an 18-month, high-profile controversy that had pitted immigrant rights groups against English-only advocates. Meanwhile, the EEOC had come under fire by some House lawmakers, mostly Republicans, for targeting the Salvation Army.

The EEOC sued the organization in district court in 2007, alleging it discriminated on the basis of national origin by firing two Spanish-speaking workers at one of its thrift stores. Salvation Army attorneys said the workers were let go because they violated the Massachusetts store’s English language policy and failed to make a good-faith effort to acquire a better working knowledge of English during their six years on the job.

In its original complaint, the EEOC asked the court to order the Salvation Army to institute policies that would provide equal opportunities for Hispanic employees and would “eradicate the effects of its unlawful employment practices.”

In addition, the agency sought back pay and reinstatement of the workers.

In the consent decree, the Salvation Army agreed to change its job description for sales and production associates, the position held by the two fired workers. Previously, workers were required to be fluent in written and spoken English. The new policy requires an “ability to speak and understand English in a manner that is sufficient for effective communication with supervisors, employees, beneficiaries, and customers, based on the assumption that such individuals can only speak and understand English.”

The consent decree doesn’t provide relief for the two fired employees. The EEOC agreed not to pursue the workers’ individual claims; they are, however, free to seek a remedy, such as back pay or reinstatement, on their own.

Attorneys for the EEOC and the Salvation Army said they were barred from discussing the specifics of the case with a reporter, including whether the fired workers wanted their jobs back.

Elizabeth Grossman, the EEOC’s attorney on the case, said that, in general, EEOC’s objective is to bring company employment policies into compliance with the law.

“In some cases, tweaking the language may make all the difference in the world.”

Rita Zeidner is senior writer for HR Magazine. She is working on a feature on the multilingual workforce for HR Magazine.

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