We’ve talked about protected classes of workers here before. One group that’s not specifically protected under the law is people who have poor English language skills. However, that limitation is usually because a person wasn’t born in the U.S. National origin isn’t a lawful reason to fire people if they have the proper documents to work here. Therefore, is it unlawfully discriminatory to fire employees for their lack of English language skills if those skills aren’t necessary for them to do their job?
Company Sued in Federal Court by EEOC
That was the question in a federal court case brought last month in Wisconsin. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued a Green Bay company called Wisconsin Plastics Inc., after it fired a number of Hispanic and Asian production operators and replaced them mostly with Caucasian ones.
The company admitted that the workers were fired because of their lack of English language skills, but asserted that it didn’t discriminate against them because of their race or national origin and therefore didn’t violate the law. WPI conceded that reading and speaking English wasn’t necessary for the employees to perform their jobs, but nonetheless asked the court for a summary judgment.
Before the layoffs in question, which occurred over several months in late 2012 and early 2013, 75 percent of WPI’s 114 production operators were Asian and 5 percent were Hispanic. Of the people laid off, 74 percent were Asian and 8 percent were Hispanic. Over 70 percent of the new workers hired were Caucasian.
Next Stop: Jury Trial
The court ruled that there was enough indirect evidence that WPI had discriminated against the workers based on race and national origin to let the case be heard by a jury who will determine whether the company used the workers’ language skills as an excuse to practice discrimination. The court also noted however, that there are some cases in which employers can lawfully terminate workers or deny their advancement if their English skills limit their ability to do the job.
Employees’ English language skills can be a sensitive topic in the workplace, since we’re a nation of immigrants. Many people for whom English is a second language who can do their jobs perfectly well can still face discrimination from employers and fellow employees whose feelings about their English skills may be tied to deeper prejudices. If you are fired from a job that you were able to perform and you believe you were the victim of discrimination, you can and should seek advice from an experienced
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