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Illinois Governor Signs Law Banning "English Only" Workplace Rules

  • July 23, 2003

A new Illinois law makes it unlawful for employers to institute a workplace rule prohibiting employees from speaking a foreign language "in communications that are unrelated to the employee's duties." Effective January 1, 2004, the law amends the Illinois Human Rights Act, which applies to all employers with 15 or more employees.

The new law makes it a violation of the state civil rights statute to prohibit an employee from using a language other than English when the employee is speaking about matters that are not related to his or her job duties. For example, an employer cannot prohibit an employee from speaking in a foreign language while discussing a movie or a ballgame with a fellow employee.

Employees who feel they have been aggrieved may file a Charge of Discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights which, upon investigation, may bring a civil rights complaint against the employer before the Illinois Human Rights Commission. Employers found in violation may be liable for a broad range of damages, including compensatory and punitive damages, civil penalties of up to $75,000 for repeated offenses, and attorneys' fees.

Policies requiring the use of "English Only" have been a target for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for several years. On the same day Illinois Governor Blagojevich signed the law, the EEOC announced that a Colorado casino had agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle a claim brought by a class of Hispanic employees. The employees had alleged they were discriminated against and harassed by their supervisors whenever the supervisors would hear the employees speaking Spanish.

Illinois employers with an existing "English Only" policy or those considering implementing one should review carefully the scope and wording of any restrictions on using foreign languages to ensure compliance with the new state statute, as well as existing federal law and regulations.

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