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Did Whole Foods fire workers for speaking Spanish?
The organic grocery chain says two employees were suspended for being rude, not for refusing to speak English
 
Whole Foods' language policy is one of "uniform communication."
Whole Foods' language policy is one of "uniform communication." Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Latino activists in New Mexico have launched a boycott against Whole Foods over what they say is an English-only language policy for workers on the job. The spat started when two employees in one of the organic grocery chain's stores, in Albuquerque, said they had been suspended after they wrote a letter complaining about a supervisor who demanded that they speak English.

"All we did was say we didn't believe the policy was fair," one of the employees, Bryan Baldizan, told the Associated Press. "We only talk Spanish to each other about personal stuff, not work."

The company pushed back, saying the employees were suspended for being rude to their bosses — in front of customers — not for complaining about the language policy. Ben Friedland, a company marketing executive in the Rocky Mountain region, said the policy doesn't ban Spanish. It merely requires English-speaking workers to speak English to customers and fellow employees while on the clock, unless a customer addresses them in another language.

The point of the policy, according to Friedland, is to ensure "a safe working environment" and "a uniform form of communication." He added, "Team members are free to speak any language they would like during their breaks, meal periods, and before and after work."

Whole Foods probably should not expect that explanation to quiet the outcry. Julio Ricardo Varela at NBC Latino wrote that it was not only hypocritical to treat Spanish-speaking customers and employees so differently, but that the controversy could hurt business. "I can only venture to guess how many Latino consumers who shop at the stores will never step foot in them again," he said.

So let me get this straight: Speaking to fellow employees in Spanish on the job is a violation of policy, but if you hold an agreed-upon junta (sorry, meeting) with a customer in the Organic Soy Products aisle because you want that customer to purchase a product and close a sale so your store can make money off that Spanish-speaking customer, that is not a violation of policy? Eso no tiene sentido, which means "That makes no sense" for all you Whole Foods employees out there who aren’t allowed to speak Spanish at work. [NBC Latino]

Ralph Arellanes, state director of the New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizens, threatened to take the boycott nationwide unless Whole Foods implemented a new language policy within a week, insisting that the current one violates the New Mexico constitution, which protects Spanish and American-Indian languages.

A Whole Foods spokesperson said the company would meet with the groups that took offense to "hear their perspective." Translation: Whole Foods just might have been rattled enough by the backlash to budge.

 
Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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