Op-ed columnist Julio Varela offers his take on the latest controversy surrounding grocery retailer Whole Foods. (Photo/Getty Images)

Opinion: Whole Foods’ English-only policy is clueless and wrong

After reading a story by the Associated Press’ Russell Contreras that NBC Latino published this morning, about how two New Mexico-based Whole Foods employees were issued a one-day suspension for speaking Spanish during work hours, I don’t know what is worse: the fact the employees were disciplined for violating company policy or the corporate public relations response the company has shared so far about the controversy, which has been tearing up the Latino social media space.

I am going to choose the latter for this very simple reason: right now, even as I pen this column, the reaction has been raw, quick, and angry. The decision to suspend employee Bryan Baldizan and an unnamed female employee at an Albuquerque, New Mexico store (NOTE: for those of you playing at home, both “Albuquerque” and “Mexico” are Spanish words) is being seen by many as idiotic and short-sighted. I can only venture to guess how many Latino consumers who shop at the stores will never step foot in them again.

I am not surprised one bit that the negative response is spreading like fuego. (Sorry, fire. I wouldn’t want Whole Foods to suspend me.) The first sign that this wasn’t going to be a great day for Whole Foods was when Ben Friedland, Whole Foods Market Rocky Mountain Region Executive Marketing Coordinator, told the AP the decision to suspend was about safety issues.  “Our policy states that all English speaking Team Members must speak English to customers and other Team Members while on the clock,” said Friedland. “Team Members are free to speak any language they would like during their breaks, meal periods and before and after work,” he stated.

Even worse, Friedland took the time to clarify that employees can speak to Spanish-speaking customers in Spanish if… (wait for it) the “parties present agree that a different language is their preferred form of communication.”

So let me get this straight: speaking to fellow employees in Spanish on the job is a violation of policy, but if you hold an agreed-upon junta (sorry, meeting) with a customer in the Organic Soy Products aisle because you want that customer to purchase a product and close a sale so your store can make money off that Spanish-speaking customer, that is not a violation of policy? Eso no tiene sentido, which means “That makes no sense” for all you Whole Foods employees out there who aren’t allowed to speak Spanish at work.

Such hypocrisy doesn’t even apply to Whole Foods’ official blog posts and in-store announcements. A two-minute search of the company’s official site produced a Salud! Cooking School announcement, great tips for Cinco de Mayo, and a Latin Party with the band Putumayo. Suspend these blogs now! They’re using Spanish words on Whole Foods pages!

Then there is the fact that this happened in New Mexico, of all places, where close to 33% of the population speaks Spanish at home. Maybe it’s time to revisit that policy, Whole Foods?

I would think that Whole Foods would be smart enough to stop spinning this story any more, so I reached out to the company’s Media Relations team and this is what spokesperson Libba Letton wrote me via email:

At Whole Foods Market,

  • We do not have “no foreign languages spoken” policies in ANY of our stores.
  • Our approach is that the default language is English, for consistent communication, inclusion, and especially for safety and emergency situations.
  • We are proud of our multilingual TMs [Team Members] and try to work with customers in other languages whenever needed!
  • We recently had an incident where two TMs became upset when they believed they were told in a team meeting they could not speak Spanish at work. They misunderstood. Due to their rude and disrespectful behavior both in an office and in the store in front of customers, they were suspended with pay. Their suspension was due to their behavior alone.
  • The store launched a full investigation based on their claims. Seventeen Team Members who attended the meeting confirmed that the language policy was discussed, and that at no time were they told they could not speak Spanish.

Ohhh — so they weren’t suspended for speaking Spanish to each other, but for actually challenging management when told they couldn’t speak Spanish. I get it.

I appreciate that Whole Foods responded to my questions, but it is clear that the social media reaction so far has been overwhelmingly negative. And there’s still that whole “safety and emergency situations” phrase that is bothersome. Last time I checked, I can scream the same in both English and Spanish.

Let’s say this together, people: the United States has over 35 million Spanish speakers, which translate (no pun intended) into 35 million consumers and workers as well. Some are even predicting that the United States will be the largest Spanish-spaking country in the world by 2050. Yet, contrary to what the clueless ones think, the rapid growth of Spanish in this U.S. won’t eliminate English.

From a pure business strategy, denying reality is a dumb move. If companies are going to survive and thrive in this country, they should stop treating Spanish like some dangerous second-class linguistic threat to the American way of life, which by the way allows for Spanish speakers like me to choose other places to shop.

Next stop for me, Trader Joe’s.

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Julio Ricardo Varela (@julito77 ) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond.  In the past 12 months, Julito represented the Rebeldes on Face the NationNPRUnivisionForbes, and The New York Times.

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