Is dismissal due to poor English proficiency illegal?

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The United States of America, over several centuries of immigration, has ended up as a multicultural tapestry of languages, skin tones, and nationalities. Our country remains a destination for many people who feel endangered in their home countries, and many immigrants arrive with limited English proficiency.

Still, non-English speakers must earn a living, which creates a problem for employers. Under federal anti-discrimination law, employers cannot discriminate against employees based on their country of origin, and the primary language spoken is an indication of national origin. This has led some to believe that termination of employment due to low English proficiency is illegal. 

However, that is not true. If an employer makes English proficiency a job requirement, that means they can legally fire an employee if their English language skills are not up to what they expect. For an employer to legally require a job candidate to have proficient command of English, language skills must be necessary for a safe and effective job performance or for the successful operation of the employer’s business.

Practical Examples

Let’s look at the case of a person looking for a job as a receptionist in a medical office. If they don’t understand what a patient is asking for when they call or visit, it can lead to adverse health outcomes for that patient. In that case, proficiency in English would be considered a requirement for the safe and effective performance of that job. 

Then, another example would be a person looking for a job as a customer service agent. Talking to clients is the entirety of the employer’s business. If they do not have a proficient level of English, they will not be able to perform their duties successfully. On the contrary, if someone is looking for a job as a chef in a restaurant or doing cleaning services, English skills may not be considered essential, and therefore they could apply and do that job without a good command of English.

This is an indisputably gray area of ​​the law. If you suspect you’ve been discriminated against, contact Gutierrez for a consultation. We may be able to help you better understand your situation and will be able to represent you if illegal discrimination is taking place.