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Will other states follow California’s lead with enhanced National Origin protections?

Effective July 1, 2018, California has, by way of administrative regulations, enhanced the protections against national origin discrimination found in its mini-Title VII called the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

These well-intentioned but poorly drafted regulations expand the definition of national origin, now, to include an individual’s or their “ancestor’s” “actual or perceived”:

  1. physical, cultural, or linguistic characteristics associated with a national origin group;
  2. marriage to or association with persons of a national origin group;
    tribal affiliation;
  3. membership in or association with an organization identified with or seeking to promote the interests of a national origin group;
  4. attendance or participation in schools, churches, temples, mosques, or other religious institutions generally used by persons of a national origin group; and
  5. name that is associated with a national origin group.

The regulations offer few helpful definitions to interpret these new rules.

  • What is a “physical, cultural or linguistic characteristic” besides an obvious accent?
  • What is a church “generally used by persons of a national origin group”? For example, one can guess that the Greek members of a Greek Orthodox church are protected, but how about the non-Roman members of a Roman Catholic church parish that includes people of every national origin?
  • What is a “name that is associated with a national origin group”? For example, is the name “Garcia” such a name, where it is generally considered the most common Hispanic last name, even though it is common in nearly every Latino country and non-Latino country, and is actually of Basque origin (with the Basque arguably not being Hispanic in the sense their traditional language is Basque not Spanish)?

One definition that is offered in these vague regulations is for the phrase, “national origin groups”:

“National origin groups” include, but are not limited to, ethnic groups, geographic places of origin, and countries that are not presently in existence.

Unfortunately that definition raises more questions than it answers. For example, what does it mean to say someone identifies with “countries that are not presently in existence”?

The regulations also take a strong position against English-only rules. Under these new California regulations, English-only rules are never permitted during employee breaks, lunch, or employer-sponsored events, and only rarely permitted during working time and in workplaces when narrowly tailored as required by a business necessity.

With regard to accents, again, those seem to be protected as a national origin “characteristic,” and as such discrimination on the basis of accents is only permitted when, again, mandated as narrowly tailored to a business necessity.

The regulations expressly state that they protect even unauthorized immigrants. The only exception is when mandated otherwise by federal law. This is true even where the individual presents, as part of the I-9 process, a California driver’s license that expressly identifies the individual as an undocumented worker. The regulations also state that even a “single unwelcome act of harassment” may be sufficient to violate these laws, without explaining how it is that an employer can ask such a worker about their work authorization without inadvertently crossing the line into having asked a question that the worker found to be a “single unwelcome act of harassment.”

It remains to be seen whether other states will follow California’s lead, or if at some point the federal government will do so under Title VII. However, employers in every state may wish to take a moment to review these new regulations. Arguably their poorly drafted language does not, at least in some instances, expand Title VII so much re-interpret its existing requirements. If other jurisdictions do decide to follow California’s lead, they will hopefully provide employers with more clear language, especially since employers generally probably agree with the basic thrust of what the California bureaucrats who drafted these regulations intended.

Source: 2 California Code of Reglations 11027, et seq.