Carlos Solero couldn't believe his ears when his bosses started reprimanding him for speaking Spanish.
"Even if I was singing to myself or just mumbling, I would get a warning," the 31-year-old said of the English-only policy his bosses instituted at a suburban Chicago manufacturing plant two years ago.
The company said the policy was needed to improve communication on its assembly line. Eventually Solero was asked to sign a work agreement that included the policy, but he refused.
"I told them, 'You cannot shut me up,' " said Solero, who was fired three days later.
Now he and seven other Spanish speakers--and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission--have filed lawsuits against Watlow Batavia, a metal-casting and assembly plant in Batavia, Ill.
Legal experts say it's part of a growing movement against employers who try to force workers to speak only English on the job.
"I think we're going to see more and more of these types of lawsuits, especially as the population of immigrants grows and more languages are spoken in the workplace," said Jose Behar, an EEOC attorney handling the agency's suit against Watlow.
Complaints filed by the EEOC against companies with English-only policies have nearly tripled in the last three years, according to the agency. Ninety-one were filed nationwide last year, compared with 32 in 1996.
Companies may have English-only policies as long as they can prove they are a "business necessity"--say, in an air-traffic control tower.
Trouble is, say Behar and others, some companies are taking it too far and instituting policies simply because they want to know what their employees are talking about.
"When there's some type of health and safety at stake, those are situations where English-only should be required. But in the vast majority of jobs, there really is no justification," said Donya Fernandez, an attorney with the Language Rights Project in San Francisco.
This summer, the group helped work out an agreement at an Emeryville, Calif., casino where kitchen cooks, all of whom spoke Cantonese, were told they had to speak English.
Jeff Hawn, a computer industry recruiter for Cleveland-based Management Recruiters, said he has seen a language backlash. He said a hiring manager at a Fortune 100 company recently asked him not to send any more candidates with strong accents for an Internet sales position.
"She was really pushing the envelope of EEOC laws. I was really uncomfortable," said Hawn, who complained to the manager's supervisor.
Executives at Watlow defend its English-only policy, which they say was temporary and part of an overall plan to improve an assembly department in crisis.
"We have nothing against speaking any other language as long as the customer's needs are being met," said Diana Rader, the human resources manager for the company. "But the department was experiencing problems where we thought communication was only one of many issues."
The cases against Watlow Batavia are expected to be heard in U.S. District Court in Chicago early next year.
Historically, rulings have been mixed. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a federal appellate court's 1994 decision that allowed a South San Francisco meatpacker to continue using its English-only policy--a ruling President Clinton opposed. But in January, a federal judge in Chicago ruled in favor of 200 workers who fought an English-only policy at Synchro-Start Products, a Niles, Ill., manufacturing company.
As for Solero, he has landed a job as a line worker at another suburban Chicago company, Kraft Foods Inc., where he says he's free to speak Spanish.
"We're in the United States. I understand that," said Solero, who grew up in Puerto Rico. "But when I'm talking to another Hispanic person, why shouldn't I be able to speak my own language?"