The eight Macy's employees say supervisors told them they would lose their jobs at the company's store in the Southdale mall in Edina if they refused to stop speaking their native language at work.
Macy's has since launched an investigation into what the workers say amounts to a violation of their civil rights.
Kenya McKnight with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations is speaking on behalf of the workers. McKnight says the Somalis were surprised to hear it was the store's policy that all workers speak only English.
"They currently work in the basement of Macy's in the merchandise department, where they sort all new merchandise that comes through, they sort out all new inventory, and they basically have little to no contact with customers at all," said McKnight. "So they were really confused about why they had to speak only English."
In most cases, it's perfectly legal for employees to speak in languages other than English at work.
McKnight says all the workers speak fluent English, and were sometimes called upon to translate for Somali customers on the sales floor.
When the workers protested the new rules to supervisors and the human resources department, they were again threatened with dismissal.
Macy's officials declined to comment for this story, but the company issued a statement saying it does not have an English-only policy. The statement says the company doesn't tolerate discrimination and is committed to finding a prompt resolution to the matter.
As part of the federal Civil Rights Act, employers are barred from making decisions about or harassing workers based on national origin, language or accent. But nationally, these complaints are on the rise.
Between 2002 and 2007, complaints to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rose from a few hundred to almost 9,400. And even though the law is clear in prohibiting English-only rules, it does allow exceptions for business necessity. That means employers can require English for communication with customers or for safety reasons.
English-only rules also violate Minnesota state human rights law. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights reports it has received about half a dozen English-only complaints recently. Most came from Hmong speakers.
Steve Lapinsky, who heads the enforcement unit at the department, says most of the complaints he deals with are similar to what happened at Macy's, where supervisors apparently act against official company policy.
"Some employers at the higher levels know what the law is and want it complied with. But they'll have some supervisors or managers who either are ignorant of it, or are just prejudiced or insensitive, and they'll take actions which would violate the statute," said Lapinsky. "Sometimes their employers catch them doing it and take corrective action, and sometimes they don't."
Lapinsky says in most cases, it's perfectly legal for employees to speak in languages other than English at work. Employers found in violation of state law are liable for damages, and workers fired without cause are entitled to get their jobs back, with pay.
Employment law attorney Kathleen Hughes says most supervisors actually think they are doing the right thing when they institute English-only rules.
"Sometimes what a supervisor will be trying to do in this kind of a situation, where they say we would like everybody to speak English, is to eliminate the divisions between the employees in the work unit or on the team," Hughes said. "You don't really like to have a group of people working together who don't talk to each other."
Hughes says when employees speak different languages at work it can often lead to divisions. That's why, she says, it is essential that companies provide better training for managers to ensure the workplace is free of language-based discrimination.
The Somali workers at Macy's are asking for a guarantee from the company that they won't lose their jobs for going public.