Whole Foods Says It Does Not Forbid Employees From Speaking Foreign Languages

PHOTO: A Whole Foods Market in Albuquerque, N.M. is shown, June 6, 2013, during lunch time.
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Whole Foods is on the defensive, saying it does not have "no foreign languages spoken" policies in any of its stores after two workers in New Mexico say they were suspended for speaking Spanish.

The two employees at a Whole Foods Market store in Albuquerque say they were suspended a day after they wrote a letter following a meeting with a manager who told them Spanish was not allowed during work hours, the Associated Press first reported.

The grocery chain, based in Austin, Texas, said the two were suspended with pay last month due to "rude and disrespectful behavior."

The company said the two employees who were suspended "became upset when they believed they were told in a team meeting they could not speak Spanish at work."

"That was not what was communicated. They were suspended with pay due to rude and disrespectful behavior. Their suspension was due to their behavior alone, not for speaking Spanish," the company said in a statement.

Employers cannot impose English-only rules unless they are used to promote safe or efficient operation of the business, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Angela B. Cornell, director of the Labor Law Clinic at Cornell Law School, said suspending an employee for speaking Spanish on the job would certainly "raise a red flag" regarding national origin discrimination.

"There are times when speaking English is necessary to effective job performance, but there are many situations that cross the line into discriminatory conduct," she said, adding that English only policies are suspect because they so frequently cross the line into discriminatory conduct.

Whole Foods said in a statement on its website on Thursday that the "suspension was due to their behavior alone, not for speaking Spanish."

"Nevertheless, the store leadership launched a full investigation and 17 team members who also attended the meeting confirmed that the language policy was discussed, and at no time were the two team members told they could not speak Spanish," the company said.

But Bryan Baldizan, who works in the store's food preparation department, told the AP, "All we did was say we didn't believe the policy was fair. We only talk Spanish to each other about personal stuff, not work."

Baldizan did not immediately return ABC News' request for comment. The other employee, identified as Lupe Gonzales by KRQE, could not be reached for comment.

KRQE in Albuquerque published part of Baldizan's letter, which stated: "I could not understand how for Cinco de Mayo, we dressed employees up in serapes and sombreros with fake mustaches but the language that is connected with that was suddenly forbidden."

Libba Letton, Whole Foods spokeswoman, told ABC News today that the company is reviewing its language policy and it will be the topic of ongoing conversations at an all-leadership conference next week.

The company is also reaching out to groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens "to discuss the issue and hear their perspective," Letton said.

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