One Workforce—Many Languages

Cover Story

By Rita Zeidner Jan 1, 2009

HR Magazine, January 2009On a steamy July afternoon, Antonia Diaz makes her way to a worktable in the bowels of a dusty construction pit outside Washington, D.C., and heaves a circular saw onto a plywood sheet. With her eyes fixed on the wood, she painstakingly makes the first cut in her latest project––construction of a handrail for a dangerous open stairwell her co-workers use to move supplies.

“My work makes it safe for everyone,” she says in accented English. “Otherwise, someone could fall and break a foot or a leg. I’m so proud of what I do.”

It’s a claim she could not have made five years ago, when she immigrated to the United States from Honduras speaking only Spanish and not knowing a miter box from a whipsaw.

Diaz, a brawny one-time truck driver, landed a job as a laborer at Miller & Long, a Maryland construction company, shortly after arriving in the country. Within a few weeks, she began attending free English classes that the company offered to its mostly Spanish-speaking workers on Saturdays.

She also entered Miller & Long’s carpentry apprenticeship, where she was required to study textbooks and other technical materials available only in English. ›

“The teacher would say, ‘I’m sorry, guys, but this is the U.S. and we speak English,’ ” she recalls.

Three years later, her studies paid off. She passed her carpentry certification exam––offered only in English––and was promoted to Miller & Long’s safety team at nearly twice her starting salary. She began dating a co-worker who only speaks English. The couple is now raising their 2-year-old daughter.

Contemporary Tower of Babel?

Diaz’s experience contrasts sharply with the original Bible story of Babel, where a chaotic mix of languages was mankind’s punishment for attempting to build a tower to heaven. The ancient parable is mostly about arrogance. But viewed in the context of the diverse U.S. workforce, the story takes on contemporary significance.

Today, foreign-born workers make up nearly 16 percent of the domestic labor force––a proportion demographers predict will increase as the number of U.S.-born workers decreases and immigration continues.

Not surprisingly, growth in the foreign-born population has gone hand-in-hand with growing diversity of languages. The number of people living in the United States who spoke a language other than English at home grew by 38 percent in the 1980s and by 47 percent in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While the general population age 5 and older grew by one-fourth from 1980 to 2000, the number who spoke a language other than English at home more than doubled.

Demographic changes in the workforce reflect the immigration boom.

“Just to fill positions and have growth, employers are relying more heavily on the non-English-speaking labor force,” says Jerry Rubin, president and chief executive officer of Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), a Boston-based nonprofit that offers English language classes as part of its job training services.

English classes for immigrants once were the province of public schools, local government and humanitarian agencies. Now, faced with a Babel of languages on shop floors and construction sites, in hotels and restaurants, and in other low-wage workplaces, many employers say providing English language training to their workers has become a strategic imperative. “You don’t need English to work at Miller & Long,” says Myles Gladstone, the company’s vice president of human resources, who is fluent in English and Spanish. “But you do need English to get ahead.”

Developing a Working Vocabulary

Accident prevention was an early driver for workplace English programs, says Timmie Westfall, director of a workplace English program that Indiana’s Department of Education launched in the 1990s after several Spanish-speaking workers in the state were seriously hurt or killed on construction sites and in factories. But interest in such programs now spans most industries, not just those with historically high injury rates. Some companies rely on English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs, also known as English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, to improve workers’ understanding of basic workplace rules, such as the need to call in an unscheduled

absence. Others offer classes as an employee benefit to lure high-potential new workers or, at a minimum, to help ensure that their current workers understand their pay and benefits.

In restaurants, growing demand for ESOL training stems, in part, from several high-profile outbreaks of food poisoning. Widespread complaints about slow drive-through times and goofed orders spur interest. “Customers go crazy when workers can’t speak English,” says Gerald Fernandez, president of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance, a Providence, R.I.-based industry group that trains restaurant workers and managers.

Restaurant owners also link the language gap to restaurant waste––death for businesses with narrow profit margins. “If you ask for your burger with mustard and you get it with mayonnaise, then the restaurant has to throw it out,” Fernandez adds.

At some hospitals, boosting workers’ English skills is key to meeting future health care needs. Human resource professionals at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, a 725-bed facility in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood, for instance, set aside funds to turn its mostly Russian and Haitian cadre of nurses’ aides into desperately needed, and more highly paid, licensed practical nurses. But they shifted most of the funds to English classes because most of the aides lacked the requisite English skills to enter college nursing programs.

“We realized there was a greater need for the ESOL piece,” says Susan Natale, the hospital’s career development manager.

Are English Classes a Good Fit for Your Business?

Employers interviewed by HR Magazine identified many reasons they invest in English language programs. Among the most common:

  • Improve compliance with safety and other policies.
  • Boost worker productivity by improving comprehension.
  • Ensure that workers understand pay and benefits.
  • Improve customer service and prevent waste resulting from worker error.
  • Enhance communication and relationships among workers and managers.
  • Improve recruitment and retention.
  • Help low-wage workers improve earning potential.
  • Plan for future workforce needs.

Disincentives to offering classes include:

  • Too costly.
  • Scant evidence of return on investment.
  • Lack of worker need or interest.

Employers Put on a Class Act

Today, employers are taking a variety of approaches to teach their workers English.

Subsidized and discounted ESOL classes are available to many companies through state adult education and local workforce development agencies. (For information about contacting these resources, see the online version of this article at for a sidebar on starting an English program.)

In Indiana, program developers work directly with individual Hoosier businesses to design workplace-specific curricula built around vocabulary and concepts workers use in their jobs. Employers must agree to pay workers for class time and provide a classroom. Once classes start, employers are encouraged to attend advisory group meetings with teachers, state evaluators and participating employees to resolve problems that could hamper the programs’ success.

Companies pay the state about $735 per student per series and, at the end of a 60-hour training series, receive group progress reports. Individual scores are not shared with employers, but internal audits, a mandatory component of the state program, show some students advancing by a grade or two after 60 hours, Westfall reports.

Hebrew Rehabilitation hired the nonprofit JVS to manage its ESOL program––after being wowed by its reputation among other Boston employers and the high caliber of its instructors, Natale says.

The hospital offers beginning English classes to all workers, including those not directly involved in patient care. These beginning classes focus on customer service vocabulary, while advanced courses home in on reading and writing. During a recent class, students were asked to write about their experiences caring for patients and to practice their speaking skills by discussing medical ethics.

“We most definitely run a very serious, academic-type program with the goal of getting employees to college-level readiness,” says Natale, noting that the hospital is budgeting about $2,000 per employee per year for English classes.

It’s too early to judge results at Hebrew Rehabilitation, but early indicators are encouraging: Most of the 50 hospital employees who started the ESOL program in 2006 have stuck with it, and several began nursing studies last fall

As a bonus, ESOL classes generate buzz among job seekers and may help with recruitment in a fiercely competitive market for workers.

“In the Boston area, it is extremely difficult to find free English classes,” says Natale, who frequently receives calls from job seekers asking about the program.

Michelle Crabtree, human resource director for Hyatt Regency in Arlington, Va., receives vouchers from Arlington County that allow workers to attend a 10-week series of evening English classes for $35––about one-tenth the tuition elsewhere, she says. Employees pay the fee upfront and get reimbursed by the hotel if they complete the classes.

Making it to English classes after working a full shift wasn’t always easy, concedes Ana Ramirez, a Salvadoran who studied English on Hyatt’s dime throughout the 1990s. Her hectic schedule forced her to stop and start classes several times, but she was promoted from maid to housekeeping supervisor once she learned English.

“Now, I tell my employees to go to school,” she says. “If you are interested in taking classes, you make it happen.”

Some employers are launching ESOL programs without direct government assistance. The costs are deductible as business expenses, as with other training.

Gladstone of Miller & Long, for instance, enlisted several HR staffers to teach English classes on Saturdays, supplementing lessons with textbooks the company buys for about $35 each.

Civil rights and management groups––often at odds over the treatment of low-wage workers––are both lauding Maryland-based Marriott International for its $500,000, two-year investment in portable, computerized recording devices to help Spanish-speaking workers learn English at home. So far, the program appears to be popular; about 1,400 employees have borrowed the tools, marketed under the name Sed de Saber­—Spanish for “thirst for knowledge.”

Earlier this year, McDonald’s presented a series of 26 90-minute English classes to about 100 restaurant managers and plans to expand the program soon, a spokeswoman said.

But not all ESOL methods work in all settings. Officials of the National Restaurant Association had high hopes for a structured program where restaurant workers met daily for 10 to 15 minutes to practice their English and learn words. But it discontinued its pilot because employees weren’t progressing and managers had difficulty finding space for the groups to meet, a spokeswoman says.

Even more costly traditional programs have had mixed results.

Marriott switched to the take-home devices because many employees work two or more jobs and say they don’t have time to sit in class, according to David Rodriguez, the company’s executive vice president for global HR. Hyatt hired instructors to teach English classes at some of its hotels but discontinued them because of employees’ low interest and irregular attendance.

Tolerance and Intolerance

Despite growing popularity, employer-provided ESOL classes are rare. Only about 10 percent of employers responding to Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) studies in each of the last two years said they offered ESOL classes as a benefit. Last summer, 24 percent of respondents to a SHRM online survey said they cover some or all of the costs associated with English classes.

But some employers have grown impatient with non-English speakers. Last year, Kenneth Cuccinelli, a conservative state senator in Fairfax, Va., unsuccessfully pushed for legislation that would have allowed companies to fire workers who don’t speak English on the job and would have exempted businesses from paying unemployment benefits to workers let go in such cases. Cuccinelli said he wanted to protect employers from workers who renege on a promise to learn English once hired.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) discourages employers from requiring workers to speak English on the job and warns that such policies could be grounds for national origin lawsuits. Nevertheless, the number of employee English-only discrimination claims filed with the EEOC has increased nearly every year since 1996. In fiscal 2007, the agency received 190 English-only complaints from workers, a tiny fraction of its cases, but six times the number of such complaints filed a decade earlier.

The EEOC’s restrictive view on the legality of workplace English-only policies has become a political lightning rod, pitting civil rights advocates against some businesses. In 2007, the Senate voted to shift $700,000 in anti-discrimination enforcement funds to another agency after the EEOC charged the Salvation Army with national origin discrimination for firing two of its thrift store workers because they didn’t speak English. Last November, nearly three years after the workers were let go, EEOC lawyers agreed to drop the charges. In return, the Salvation

Army promised to soften its policy and now requires “effective” English skills, rather than English language fluency.

The settlement doesn’t include a remedy for the workers. Yet it remains consistent with the EEOC’s main goal in such cases, according to Elizabeth Grossman, the EEOC’s attorney in the case. “In some cases, tweaking the [policy] may make all the difference in the world,” she says.

Employees who prefer to speak languages other than English at work have not been a problem for, an online framing and art supplier in Columbus, Ohio, says the company’s HR manager, Daryl Neville.

But he has been driven to find creative solutions for managing a recent influx of workers from the East African nation of Somalia, some of whom speak only the national language, Somali.

Mostly, the company relies on a handful of longtime bilingual employees whom managers and the non-English speakers trust.

The ad hoc translators were essential in helping company officials understand the workers’ unfamiliar Muslim customs and accommodate them, Neville says. Since the workers pray several times a day, for instance, the company sets aside space for a prayer room and installed special sinks where employees wash their feet—an essential part of the ritual.

When the company distributed an employee survey earlier this year, the bilingual workers were asked to help the non-English speakers complete it.

So far, the informal system appears to be working––at least no one has complained.

“These folks are very good employees,” Neville said. “So we’re happy to have them.”

The author is senior writer for HR Magazine.

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