By Rights... Answers to Your Human Rights Questions

Column 29

In this column:

  • Can Previous Employers Still Give You a Bad Reference?
  • Can Employer Require Hmong Employees to Speak English Only?
  • Must Employer Provide Pregnant Employee with "Light Duty"?
  • Must Company Provide Separate Facilities for Newly-Hired Women on Construction Crew?
  • Can Fast-Food Restaurant Fire My Daughter for "Rolling Her Eyes"?
  • Can They Fire My Kids Because They're Firing Me?
  • Can My College Force Me to Live On-Campus?
  • How Long Can I Wait To File a Civil Suit?

Can Previous Employers Still Give You a Bad Reference?

My son was terminated by a previous employer some months ago. I talked to his manager about the termination, and she told me she would not give him a bad reference. But my son is still looking for a job, and we just found out this is not the case — the previous employer has been giving him a bad reference. I thought there were laws in place that don’t allow previous employers to give out bad references. I thought all the previous employer could do was to verify wages, dates of employment and position/title. Can you please confirm this for me?

The Commissioner says:

Unless your son was terminated or is being given a bad reference because of his race, national origin, religion, a disability, or another characteristic protected under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, your question falls outside of our jurisdiction and expertise. That said, we know no law that prevents an employer from giving an unflattering reference. It is true that many employers as a matter of policy choose to restrict their comments about former employees to verifying the basic facts you’ve mentioned. But not all employers follow this practice, nor are they required to do so. If your son has reason to believe that his former employer is providing information that is untrue or is acting out of malice, your son may choose to discuss his concern with a private attorney. The Department of Human Rights cannot give legal advice.

Can Employer Require Hmong Employees to Speak English Only?

I am Hmong and a temporary employee for a company in Saint Paul. Since I began there, I have heard complaints from two employees I work with, who say it is not fair that I and my Hmong coworkers speak in our language when we meet and greet each other. The majority of people working for the company are Hmong, but I’ve been told that numerous people who do not speak Hmong have gone to the HR and have reported it as rude and disrespectful in the workforce. I’ve also been told that HR is trying to do something about the situation, and may soon require us to speak only in English. I have never worked for a company that has done this before — most companies would be happy to know that I am bi-lingual. Can companies not allow their employees to speak another language, even though they are capable of speaking, reading, and writing English perfectly?

The Commissioner says:

An employer can require employees to speak only English while on the job if there is a valid business justification for this requirement.An employer might require employees to speak English when communicating with English-speaking customers, or with their supervisor, or where work efficiency or safety concerns require that everyone communicate in the same language. But the fact that some English-speaking employees consider the speaking of another language to be somehow discourteous does not qualify as a valid business justification. To enforce an English-only rule based solely on the preferences or prejudices of Englishspeaking employees might be a discriminatory practice prohibited under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

Must Employer Provide Pregnant Employee with "Light Duty"?

I am pregnant and a paramedic, a very physically demanding job. What is my employer’s obligation to provide “light duty” to me when I progress to the point of being unable to do my job? I have an opportunity to go into our dispatch center, but on a part-time basis and a reduced hourly rate.

The Commissioner says:

If your employer has at least 15 employees, they must make reasonable accommodation to the pregnancy-related restrictions of which you make them aware, unless every accommodation would impose an undue hardship on their operations. They are entitled to documentation of the existence of your restrictions and the medical necessity of alternative assignments. Your employer is not required to remove essential functions of your current position, in order to accommodate you, nor must they create a position for you if you are unable to continue in your job, as modified. One potential accommodation would be to temporarily place you in a vacant position, within your restrictions, for which you are already qualified. Employers are not required to maintain a higher pay rate in a different position, but a case might be made for that if the respective pay ranges overlap. At some point, a job-protected leave of absence may be the only suitable accommodation and, if your employer is large enough, job protection may also be available under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Should you wish to pursue the specifics of your situation with a department representative, please contact our intake unit at 651-296-5663 or 1- 800-657-3704 to discuss your situation in more detail.

Must Company Provide Separate Facilities for Newly-Hired Women on Construction Crew?

A local company’s outside crew has been all male for many years. Now two females have applied for positions on the crew. If the females are hired, does this company have to provide any different amenities on the job site (mini-biffs, as an example) for the females vs. males?

The Commissioner says:

The Minnesota Human Rights Act does not require employers to have any specific policies with respect to amenities for males and females on the job. The Act does require employers to not discriminate based on gender — with respect to hiring, pay and all other terms and conditions of employment including amenities. If there is a locker room where employees shower or change clothes, unisex use would not be acceptable, but scheduled men’s and women’s access might be a reasonable alternative to building a separate facility. We would need a lot more information to determine how the requirement to not discriminate would apply in the situation you describe. If you are an employee and believe the company’s provisions for these amenities are discriminatory based on your gender, you may wish to contact our intake unit at 651-296-5663 or 1-800-657-3704 and tell us why you think so.

Can Fast-Food Restaurant Fire My Daughter for "Rolling Her Eyes"?

My daughter is 15 years old and employed at a fast-food restaurant. Yesterday the manager asked her how she likes the job, and she said it was going well. Then the manager told her she was going to have to let her go in a week or two, because other employees say that she rolls her eyes at them, and that she has been giving away ice cream. How can you let someone go because others say she rolls her eyes? She is the only Black employee they have, and has been treated unfairly since she’s been there. What are her rights and what can she do about this? I also wonder why they’ve been paying her in cash — her first check was in cash, and when I told her to ask them about getting a check and a check stub so she could see her hours, they said they didn’t have her time card. Should they be paying her in cash?

The Commissioner says:

If your daughter has been treated unfairly in comparison to other employees, and if the reason for this adverse treatment is that she is black and the other employees are not, that would likely be considered discrimination based on race, which is illegal under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. It’s important to understand that the Act does not necessarily prevent employers from behaving unfairly or from terminating employees for “unfair” reasons. An employee can be “let go” because of the way she “rolls her eyes” — in fact, unless discrimination is involved, employers are generally free to terminate an employee at any time for any reason, just as an employee can generally quit a job at any time. But if you believe your daughter’s race was a factor in her dismissal, you may wish to contact our intake unit at 651-296-5663 or 1-800-657-3704 on her behalf, and tell us why you think so.

We can’t speak to whether or not it was proper that your daughter was paid in cash — unless she was the only one paid in cash and discrimination was the reason. You may want to contact the Minnesota Department of Revenue, which has an interest in ensuring that employers properly withhold taxes and keep adequate records of wages paid and taxes withheld. You can contact that department at 651-282-9999 or through the web at www.taxes.state.mn.us.

Can They Fire My Kids Because They're Firing Me?

I was terminated from my position as a District Manager. My daughter was terminated by the company at the same time, as was my son, because of their relationship to me. I understand Minnesota is a “at will” employment state, but I wonder if terminating other staff because they are related to an employee being let go is legal? There are no documented or other performance issues.

The Commissioner says:

You raise an interesting question. If your spouse had been terminated merely because that person was your spouse, that would be discrimination based on marital status, and illegal — unless the employer could show that a compelling business reason required your spouse’s termination. But while the Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment based on martial status, it does not include “familial status” as a protected characteristic in employment. Thus, it is not a violation of the Act for your employer to terminate your children merely because they also terminated you, even if there are no performance issues.

Can My College Force Me to Live On-Campus?

I’m a sophomore attending a private college. I would like to live off campus next year, but for some reason you have to have special permission to live off campus. Does the college have a right to force students to live on campus?

The Commissioner says:

If a college were to require some students and not others to live on campus, and if race, gender or another protected characteristic was the reason for these differing requirements, there would be a potential violation of the state Human Rights Act. But there appears to be no illegal discrimination in the situation you describe, which would appear to apply equally to all students.We know of no law that would prohibit a private college from requiring students to live on campus, but unless discrimination is involved, the question is outside of our jurisdiction and expertise. To explore it further, you may choose to contact a private attorney.

How Long Can I Wait To File a Civil Suit?

How long after an employee is let go from work does he or she have to file a civil law suit against a company ?

The Commissioner says:

A civil suit alleging a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act must, according to the Act, be filed within one year of the date the discrimination took place. If an employee is terminated for a discriminatory reason, ordinarily the one-year time limit would date from the day he or she received notice of the termination. The statute of limitations may be different if one is suing for wrongful termination for a reason other than discrimination. For information about issues outside the scope of the Human Rights Act, you may wish to consult a private attorney.

The answers in these columns are not intended as legal advice. The Department of Human Rights does not make a judgment on any case without carefully examining all the facts.

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