Local News

Johnston health director tells workers to speak English

Posted October 22, 2015 6:21 p.m. EDT

— The director of the Johnston County Health Department has instructed her staff to speak only English in the office unless they are dealing with customers who speak a foreign language or are on a break.

Dr. Marilyn Pearson declined to comment Thursday on an email she sent on Oct. 1. Johnston County Manager Rick Hester said he needed to get more details from Pearson before commenting.

"I'm sure we'll be having some more discussion just to understand it a little better," Hester said, adding that there are no plans to make this a policy for other county workers.

Pearson said in her email that health department workers raised concerns about foreign languages in the office.

"For the comfort of employees and to be respectful of others who do not share that language, staff are asked to speak English in the office when not on breaks or personal time," she wrote in the email.

A spokesman for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission questioned the workplace rule, noting the health department could be inviting a lawsuit from some of its workers who speak other languages.

"We assert that employees have the right to speak other languages as long as they do not inconvenience customers or co-workers or cause any trouble for their employer in doing so. Especially unacceptable are policies that target one or more ethnic groups for different language rules from others," spokesman James Ryan said. "If English-only policies are evenly applied and reasonable and can be justified by business necessity, then EEOC would not necessarily oppose them."

George Eppsteiner, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, called it "problematic" that Pearson was establishing the rule "for the comfort of employees."

"There didn't seem to be any pressing 'comfort of employees' to implement this type of policy," Eppsteiner said.

No one in the health department would say what led to the English-only rule.