Friday, June 4, 2010

English-in-workplace measure passes Senate

Opponents fear bill could spawn legal challenges By Chas Sisk • THE TENNESSEAN • June 4, 2010 A State lawmakers approved a bill Thursday that allows businesses to require their workers to speak English on the job, despite complaints from opponents that late changes to the measure would open businesses and the state to litigation. The Senate unanimously voted in favor of a measure that says businesses can require workers to speak English whenever there is a "legitimate business necessity," such as safety or efficiency. The measure is meant to protect businesses from litigation and comply with guidelines set by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin. "I just wanted a general provision in state statute that said it's permissible for an employer to have an English-in-the-workplace policy," he said. But some anti-discrimination advocates said this week the measure might do the opposite. They say the bill suggests to business owners that they can require English in far more situations than allowed by federal law. "My concern is that employers might think it might be more far-reaching than it is," said Beverly Watts, executive director of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, the state agency that investigates complaints of workplace discrimination. "We could be in violation of federal law, so there may be some problems then." Earlier this year, lawmakers added language to the bill that said explicitly that workers cannot be required to speak English while on break. They also added provisions that explained what constitutes a business necessity and which employees could be covered. Provisions removed Anti-discrimination ad-vocates gave their support to the bill after those provisions were included, helping it clear legislative committees and initial votes on the House and Senate floor. But then lawmakers removed the provisions in a conference committee last week. "We worked ... in good faith to draft a responsible bill," said Stephen Fotopulos, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. Johnson said he asked for the provisions to be removed to simplify the bill. By leaving out the language sought by anti-discrimination groups, lawmakers have made it easier to change state rules when federal rules change. "I didn't want to get more specific in the statute because at the federal level they're guidelines," he said. "I don't see how somebody can criticize the bill." The House passed the measure last week. It now goes to Gov. Phil Bredesen. Reach Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or

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