By Rights... Answers to Your Human Rights Questions

Column 3

In this column:

  • Housing Discrimination and Unmarried Couples
  • An Intern Worries About a Boss's Friendly Offer
  • Can an Employer Require Workers to Speak "English-only?"

Housing Discrimination and Unmarried Couples

I live in an apartment, and my fiance is currently spending a lot of time there. I also have a two-year-old son, and last week my landlord told me that my "boyfriend" would have to move out, because the apartment had been rented to only myself and my child. He said he didn't care who I had "taken up" with, but the guy couldn't live in the apartment. I told him that Steve (my fiance) doesn't live there, which is true. He has his own place, which he shares with several other guys. My landlord said, "If he sleeps here every night, as far I'm concerned, he lives here." Well, my fiance doesn't stay with me "every" night, more like four or five nights a week. But he doesn't get his mail here, and he parks his car in the "guest" area of the parking lot. I know that other tenants have had long-term "guests" -- a girl upstairs had her mother staying there all summer. I think my landlord is discriminating against me because he doesn't like the fact that my fiance and I aren't married. If he tries to kick me out because he thinks Steve is living with me, what are my rights?

The Commissioner says:

While we aren't experts in landlord-tenant law, it does sound like having someone stay at your place several nights a week could put you in violation of your rental agreement. If your landlord allows other tenants to have extended guests, he can't treat you differently just because your guest is a male, to whom you are not married. But you don't have enough information about the family upstairs to know why your landlord may have made an exception in their case. Maybe they made some special arrangements with the landlord.

If Steve wants to stay at your place this often, maybe you should ask your landlord to put him on the lease. If the landlord refuses because you and Steve aren't married, there could be a basis for filing a discrimination charge, as a landlord generally cannot refuse to rent to people who are unmarried.

An Intern Worries About a Boss's Friendly Offer

I'm a college senior in my second month of an internship in public relations. I really like everything about the experience so far, except for one thing: The manager of the department, a guy who must be in his 50s, keeps asking me if I would like a ride to work in the morning. He knows I take the bus (parking downtown is too expensive), and it's fairly long ride. He doesn't live that far away from me, so probably he's just being nice. But even so, I'd feel a little uncomfortable riding to work with him every day. He knows I'm on the college swim team, and he's commented a few times about how swimming really keeps a person in great shape. I guess I'm getting mixed signals, or maybe I'm just reading them wrong. A friend of mine says he's already crossed the line, and that his comments amount to sexual harassment. What do you think? Any advice would be appreciated.

The Commissioner says:

Offering you a ride to work isn't a form of sexual harassment, and neither are the comments he has made about keeping fit. As you describe his remarks, they don't rise to the level of "unwelcome attention of a sexual nature" -- the condensed version of the sexual harassment definition in the Human Rights Act. Whether you want to accept his offer of a ride to work is up to you, of course. If you do, and he says or does anything that makes you uncomfortable, you can change the subject or change your mind about riding with him. We can't tell you whether to commute with your mentor, but we can tell you what to do if you feel his comments are too personal or his behavior is somehow inappropriate: report it to one of the people designated in the company's policy on sexual harassment. If you don't get a response that resolves the situation, you can contact us about filing a discrimination charge.

Can an Employer Require Workers to Speak "English-only?"

I work for a food catering service. They have a policy that no worker is allowed to speak Spanish, except on break. Last week one worker was overheard speaking in Spanish to her friend, as they were making salads. The manager told her she would be fired if happened again. I don't speak Spanish myself, but this seems kind of mean. He told the employee that not speaking English creates "divisiveness," and that communication was the key to teamwork. He also said that if customers hear workers speaking in Spanish, they'll think the workers are talking about them. I think he just worries that they're talking about him. He also claims that it could be dangerous to have workers speaking different languages, like if somebody's got something hot or some equipment malfunctions, and they forget and yell out something in Spanish instead of English. What do you think? Is this policy legal?

The Commissioner says:

If your company is going to prohibit employees from speaking languages other than English, it has to have a good, nondiscriminatory reason. The courts have generally found that prohibiting the use of languages other than English during work time is a reasonable rule in situations where there is a lot of heavy machinery, and the danger of injury is very high. But in other settings, such as building maintenance, hotel housekeeping and office work, there may be no justification for a such a rule. Workers may even be more productive if they can have casual conversations in the language most familiar to them. It's hard to say whether a "speak English only" rule is really a safety necessity for a catering service. Making salads doesn't seem very risky, but what about a large vat of simmering soup, or an industrial-size bread mixing machine malfunction? We'd need to know more about your job and your kitchen, and whether your Spanish-speaking co-workers are generally treated fairly and with respect, to make a judgment.

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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