WASHINGTON — A government lawsuit against the Salvation Army has the House and Senate at loggerheads over whether to nullify a law that prohibits employers from firing people who don't speak English on the job.
The fight illustrates the explosiveness of immigration as an issue in the 2008 elections.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are pushing hard to protect employers who require their workers to speak English, but Democratic leaders have blocked the move despite narrow vote tallies in the GOP's favor.
For more than 30 years, federal rules have generally barred employers from establishing English-only requirements for their workers.
But in a demonstration of the volatility of the immigration issue, Senate Republicans have won passage of legislation preventing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from enforcing the rules against English-only workplaces.
House Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have promised Latino lawmakers that the language issue was a nonstarter and the resulting impasse has stalled the underlying budget bill, which lawmakers had hoped to send to President Bush this week.
The EEOC has come under assault from lawmakers such as Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) after the agency filed suit earlier this year against a Salvation Army thrift store in Massachusetts that had fired two employees for speaking Spanish while sorting clothes.
Supporters of the EEOC regulation -- which can be waived if there is a legitimate business or safety purpose to require English -- say it protects workers from discrimination based on their national origin. The rules have their legal origin in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
"I cannot imagine that the framers of the 1964 Civil Rights Act intended to say that it's discrimination for a shoe shop owner to say to his or her employee, 'I want you to be able to speak America's common language on the job,' " Alexander said.
"You can have English-only rules . . . if in fact that English-only rule is relevant to job performance, safety, efficiency and so on," countered Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas). "If it is not relevant, if it is discriminatory, if it is gratuitous, if it is a subterfuge to discriminate against people based on national origin -- which we know that's what it is -- the EEOC doesn't allow it."
The EEOC took on the Salvation Army case because sorting clothes doesn't require speaking English.
"These women had worked at the location for five years sorting donations without any complaints about their conversing in Spanish," EEOC Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru said at a commission meeting earlier this year.
In other cases, the agency has defended workers who complained they weren't allowed to speak their native languages while on their lunch break or in telephone conversations with their spouses.
English-only lawsuits are brought rarely, the EEOC says. The agency averages just five suits a year for all language-related discrimination issues. The Salvation Army case filed in April is the most recent English-only suit.
In most instances, the EEOC lawsuits are settled out of court, with employers changing their policies and paying relatively modest damages.
"If and when we file an English-only lawsuit -- which is rare to begin with -- the usual result is a voluntary settlement," said EEOC spokesman David Grinberg. "If you look at the big picture, it's a very small part of what we do here."
In April, however, a geriatric care center in Queens, N.Y., agreed to pay $900,000 to settle an EEOC lawsuit based on an English-only policy that barred Haitian and Jamaican employees from speaking Creole but allowed Latino and other employees to speak Spanish or other languages. The policy was part of broader discrimination based on their race and national origin.
Alexander successfully attached the English-in-the-workplace provision to the EEOC budget bill on an Appropriations Committee vote in June with the support of three Democrats -- including powerful panel Chairman Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia.
In the House, Gonzalez and other Latino members narrowly won a vote in July to reject a move to prevent the EEOC from pursuing English-only discrimination cases. But the result was reversed last week on a nonbinding 218-186 vote urging negotiators on the underlying budget bill to accept Alexander's language.
Outraged Latinos said Democratic leaders didn't adequately prepare members for the vote and they got a promise from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) that Alexander's English-only provision would be killed.
House-Senate negotiations on the underlying bill have been put off indefinitely.
Alexander says that he offered watered-down language to require the agency to give notification in advance when filing cases, but that it was rejected by House Democrats.
He insists that he is not anti-immigrant, but that speaking English is crucial for immigrants to assimilate into society.
"One way to make sure that we have a . . . little more unity -- that is our country's greatest accomplishment -- is to make certain that we value our common language," Alexander said Thursday.
"And that we not devalue it by allowing a federal agency to say that it is a violation of federal law for an employer in America to require an employee to speak English on the job."