Legislation that would allow employers to require that their employees speak English in the workplace passed a House subcommittee on Wednesday, but not without some back-and-forth between the bill’s sponsor and the Tennessee state government’s human rights overseer.
The bill would shield Tennessee businesses from some discrimination lawsuits. It is designed to serve the interests of “business necessity and safe workplace environment,” according to the chief sponsor, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough.
But Tennessee Human Rights Commission Executive Director Beverly Watts initially spoke against the legislation, in part because she said her agency doesn’t have funding to deal with the possible fallout from the bill.
“We believe that it will increase our workload,” she said. “Right now we’re about 2,000 calls above what we were last year. And this bill will also create some language requirements that we cannot necessarily fulfill with our current staff. We have staff (members) that are bilingual in Spanish only, but there are many, many more languages.”
Watts also said training employers about the proposed law would be another additional cost for the agency.
The big snag, however, was Watts’ opposition to the portion of the bill that read, “it shall not be unlawful” for English to be required to be spoken in the workplace. But an employer could only make it a requirement if speaking English is a safety factor or if it is necessary for doing business. “If you read ‘it is not unlawful,’ I might just look at it and decide, ‘I can do this,’ whatever ‘this’ may be, and not look at the controlling parameters,” she said.
“To determine if it is unlawful or not, in my opinion, would require us to do an investigation because (a case) cannot on its face be determined to be discriminatory or non-discriminatory just by viewing it,” Watts said. “There might be some additional factors that need to be looked at.”
“So, when it’s written this way, I think it’s broader than if it is says, ‘it’s allowable,’” Watts continued. “In essence, we want employers to know what they can do.”
Watts’ concerns drew an impatient response from Rep. Hill.
“There was a representative or a member from the Human Rights Commission at every single meeting that we had,” he said. “She still has not talked to me about the legislation directly this year, and, of course, at the last second, she comes and opposes this legislation.”
Subcommittee Chairman Mike McDonald, D-Portland, then suggested Hill and Watts get together to discuss their differences. Hill initially refused.
“We’ve had enough meetings,” Hill said. “I have met with every single person about a half a dozen times now and I’m really tired of being hijacked at the last second on something as important as this piece of legislation.”
“We can play ‘what if’ scenarios all day long with the director’s previous comments,” he continued. “The bottom line is ‘it might do this; it could do that’ and (Fiscal Review Committee Executive Director Jim White) and his fiscal staff said it would not.”
Watts said she had not been in town for the meetings, and she maintained that representatives from the Human Rights Commission who did attend never agreed to the language of the bill.
After Hill and Watts huddled while the subcommittee handled other legislation, Hill agreed to an amendment that changed the words “it shall not be unlawful” to “it shall be an allowable employment practice.”
The bill now heads to the Consumer and Employee Affairs Committee, which meets Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.