Controversial Language Policy at Goleta Medical Device Company

Employee Objects to Multilingual Workplace

A policy requiring that employees speak only English in the workplace is causing controversy at Advanced Vision Science Inc., a medical device manufacturing company in Goleta that employs many Latinos.

“We need a common language for how to do our process in our business setting,” said Human Resources Manager Gail Lorencz, refuting the characterization of the rule as an “English-only policy.”

Yet that “common language” is English. Lorencz declined to disclose the number of workers the company employs or provide their ethnic breakdown. She stressed that in addition to Spanish employees speak the languages of Vietnam and Laos. “We have a very diverse workforce,” she said.

Multiple languages spoken during the production process increases “potential for miscommunication or other misunderstandings,” according to the written policy Lorencz provided to the Santa Barbara Independent.

But the rule could be in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, according to labor attorney Bruce Anticouni. In rare circumstances, he said, employers could enforce language restrictions should workers’ safety otherwise be at risk. “This is a manufacturing facility,” he said. “There is no reason why people couldn’t speak Spanish.”

Advanced Vision Science, which is a subsidiary of Japan-based Santen Pharmaceutical Co., produces and markets lenses and lens materials to protect and improve eyesight, according to the company’s website.

The English policy was first adopted in 2013. Lorencz said an English speaker recently complained that the rule was not being enforced. The worker said he felt “alienated” and “uncomfortable” because he thought his coworkers were talking about him, she said. The company announced this week that they would enforce the rule. Should they fail to abide, workers could be suspended or terminated on the second offense.

Employees are permitted to ask their supervisor questions in their primary languages if they are confused about their job duties. In addition, workers are able to speak their primary languages in the break areas, the parking lot, or where they are “otherwise not involved in the production process,” the policy states.

Anticouni, who recently settled an unrelated pregnancy discrimination case with Advanced Vision Science Inc., said he sees these types of English policies regularly. In general, he said, these rules are often eliminated after an employee threatens to sue for lost monetary damages should he or she be terminated.

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