NEW HAVEN, Conn. – A popular bookstore and cafe near Yale University wants its many Hispanic employees to speak only English around customers, sparking controversy in immigrant-friendly New Haven, where students fight for immigrant rights.
Atticus Bookstore and Cafe recently issued a policy stating that English should be the only language spoken on the floor and behind the counter. "Spanish is allowed in the prep area, the dishwasher area and the lower level. Let's make our customers feel welcome and comfortable," the policy states, according to New Haven Workers Association, a group of activists who said employees gave them a copy.
"I'm really appalled," said Tim Stewart-Winter, a Yale lecturer. "As a New Haven resident and member of the Yale community, I think diversity is a strength of this country."
Stewart-Winter said he likes to take out-of-town guests to Atticus, but may not now because of the policy.
Bridget Pierpont, a 40-year-old New Haven resident, said she was texting a friend as she passed Atticus on Thursday suggesting they no longer go to the bookstore because of the language policy.
"Frankly, I think that's part of the charm of this place," Pierpont said. "I think they should absolutely be able to speak Spanish here."
Atticus owner Charles Negaro issued a statement saying his business appreciates and accepts all languages and offers free English language classes to employees.
"We encourage the use of English because it's an appropriate way to be most helpful to our customers," Negaro said. "To continue to provide the best service possible, we try to help those employees who speak English as a second language by helping them improve their use of English."
Negaro said news reports about the policy have been inaccurate and "if these news reports have offended anyone, I am sorry."
"Atticus managers and staff are reviewing our policy of appropriate language usage to determine how we can avoid misinterpretations of this kind in the future," the statement said.
Negaro declined to comment beyond the statement.
Most of those interviewed outside the bookstore disagreed with the policy. But Peter Indorf, who owns a jewelry store nearby, defended Negaro.
"He's a solid member of the community," Indorf said. "He's entitled to do what he wants."
Deborah Malatesta, a member of the New Haven Workers Association, said the group plans to demonstrate Saturday in front of the bookstore. She said the policy is discriminatory.
The move comes in a city that was the first in the nation to offer identification cards to illegal immigrants. Yale Law School has been active fighting for immigrant rights, filing lawsuits over immigration raids conducted by federal authorities.
Employers are allowed to enact an English-only policy if it is needed to promote the safe or efficient operation of their business, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Examples include communications with customers, co-workers or supervisors who only speak English, emergency situations in which workers must speak a common language to promote safety and cooperative work assignments in which a common language is needed to promote efficiency.
The EEOC has successfully challenged some policies for going too far.
A group of nursing homes in California and Texas agreed last year to pay up to $450,000 to employees who said they faced discrimination for speaking Spanish at work. In 2003, the Colorado Central Station casino agreed to pay more than $1.5 million to 36 former housekeepers who say they were ordered not to speak Spanish on the job.
Courts have been divided on the issue. A court in New York in 2005 ruled against the EEOC and upheld a policy by a cosmetic store in Rockefeller Center that required employees to speak English when on the sales floor and customers are present, even if they are not communicating with customers.
Blanket policies often run into trouble, but more narrowly focused approaches are more likely to be upheld, said Peggy Mastroianni, associate legal counsel at EEOC.
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