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Wisconsin firm charged with national origin bias for firing non-English speakers


The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has charged a Green Bay, Wisconsin, manufacturer with national origin discrimination because it allegedly fired a group of Hmong and Hispanic workers because of their poor English skills, even though English proficiency was not needed to perform their jobs.

The company, Wisconsin Plastics Inc., has defended its actions in a statement.

The agency said Monday that Wisconsin Plastics, which makes metal and plastics products, fired the 12 workers based on 10-minute observations that marked them down for their English skills, even though all had received satisfactory ratings on their annual performance evaluations while working for the company's modern plastics division.

The EEOC says the company's conduct violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects workers from discrimination based on national origin, including the “linguistic characteristics of a national origin group.”

“Our experience at the EEOC has been that so-called 'English only' rules and requirements of English fluency are often employed to make what is really discrimination appear acceptable,” said EEOC Chicago regional attorney John C. Hendrickson, in a statement.

“But superficial appearances are not fooling anyone. When speaking English fluently is not, in fact, required for the safe and effective performance of a job, nor for the successful operation of the employer's business, requiring employees to be fluent in English usually constitutes employment discrimination on the basis of national origin — and thus violates federal law.”

The company said in a statement, “Wisconsin Plastics is an equal opportunity employer with a highly diverse workforce. The twelve positions affected by the lay-offs were from a pool that was comprised of 91 percent of racial and ethnic minorities, including Hmong, Hispanic, African-American and American Indian employees.

“WPI believes that the diversity of its workforce is strong evidence of the fact that WPI is firmly committed to equal employment opportunity for all persons without regard to race or national origin.

“The layoff decisions at issue in the fall of 2012 were made on the basis of the employees' overall comparative skills, behaviors and job performance over time. There was nothing illegal or untoward about any of the decisions made by WPI. Though the decisions were difficult, they were necessary in order to ensure the ongoing stability of Wisconsin Plastics for the benefit of WPI's customers, its shareholders, the community and the roughly 275 current Company and temporary employees.”

English-only workplace policies present liability hazards to employers, experts say.