Whole Foods May Face Employment Discrimination Lawsuit

whole foods spanishA few weeks ago, two employees at an Albuquerque Whole Foods Market were suspended after they complained about restrictions on speaking Spanish at work.  The company, on the other hand, claims that this was a misunderstanding.

According to Whole Foods employee Bryan Baldizan and The Associated Press, he and his co-worker were suspended in retaliation for writing a letter of complaint after their manager told them Spanish was not allowed during work hours.

Baldizan, who works in the food preparation department, reports that he left the meeting in disbelief: “All we did was say we didn’t believe the policy was fair,” he said. “We only talk Spanish to each other about personal stuff, not work.”

But Whole Foods spokeswoman Libba Letton explains that the company opened an investigation in response to the claims, which indicated that the Spanish-speakers misunderstood the meeting with their manager, and were not instructed to refrain from using Spanish.  Rather, as Letton alleges, the two employees were suspended for behaving in a “rude and disrespectful” manner in the office.

However, Ben Friedland, Whole Foods Executive Marketing Coordinator, stated that Whole Foods has a philosophy of “a uniform form of communication” to ensure a safe working environment.  “Therefore, our policy states that all English speaking Team Members must speak English to customers and other Team Members while on the clock,” Friedland said in a statement. “Team Members are free to speak any language they would like during their breaks, meal periods and before and after work.”

Letton told the AP that in addition to safety reasons, the policy is in place so employees who don’t speak Spanish don’t feel uncomfortable.

Some workers’ compensation attorneys point out an inconsistency in this claim, since best safety practices include making safety information available in multiple languages to ensure full comprehension by all workers.  This is the standard practice promoted by Washington Labor and Industries.  In addition, the incident could become a case of workplace discrimination or retaliation.

The suspension comes on the heels of several other high-profile incidents of language discrimination in New Mexico, whose population has the highest percentage of Latinos in the nation.  Last month, Spanish was barred from two high school athletic competitions: in one case, New Mexico Military Institute’s Jose Gonzales suffered a one-point penalty when he spoke in Spanish following a warning from an official during a state championship tennis match. During the previous month, an umpire tried to ban New Mexico high school baseball players from speaking Spanish during a game.

Ralph Arellanes, president of the New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizens, argues the Whole Foods policy stands in violation of the state constitution of New Mexico, which protects Spanish and American Indian languages. Latino groups are now discussing a possible boycott of businesses with similar policies.

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Emery Reddy