SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Clothing retailer Forever 21 violated state civil rights laws and discriminated against Spanish-speaking employees when it adopted an English-only policy at its flagship San Francisco store, according to a lawsuit filed this week by the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

The lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court on Wednesday alleges that the store prohibited employees from speaking any language other than English, even when greeting each other, during rest breaks and when
speaking to Spanish-speaking customers.

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The department further alleges that when three Spanish-speaking employees complained about the policy, their work hours were reduced and they were subjected to hostile treatment by management.

The Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits discrimination against employees based on their national origin, including the adoption and enforcement of English-only rules unless there is a clear business necessity.

“Linguistic diversity is a business reality in the California workplace, and the department will carefully scrutinize English-only rules to ensure that all employees are treated equally, regardless of their national origin,” DFEH director Kevin Kish said.

The matter first came to the attention of authorities after the three employees approached the community legal aid group La Raza Centro Legal for help in May 2015, according to attorney Alejandra Cuestas.

When she tried to contact the store directly about the policy, Cuestas said she first received no response and then a flat denial.

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“I would like workers to know if they are in this situation, they should know that it’s not wrong for them to speak in their native language, the state law protects them,” she said.

Cuestas urged those who encounter such policies to speak up and seek legal help from her group or others like it.

A Forever 21 spokeswoman today said that the company does not comment on pending litigation, but noted that “Forever 21 is committed to diversity and inclusion in all of our stores and does not have any policies
with regards to the language spoken in our stores.”

The lawsuit is seeking compensatory damages for the employees who complained as well as a court order to stop the policy.

A case management conference has been scheduled for the case on Aug. 30.

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