I recently had a customer come into my business who did not speak English. What are my obligations to provide services to customers who do not speak English or to provide documents in a language other than English to customers or prospective customers?


A new law that will go into effect January 1, 2016, prohibits discrimination by any business establishment that is generally open to the public against a prospective customer based on immigration status, citizenship, or primary language spoken. Proponents of this new law argued that it was unclear whether existing law applied to discrimination against a prospective customer based on immigration status, citizenship, or primary language, and that the new law was necessary to make it clear that such discrimination is unlawful. This new law specifically states, however, that businesses are not required to provide services or documents in a language other than English. Therefore, while the new law makes it illegal for businesses to adopt or enforce policies that limit or prohibit the use of a particular language or generally require that prospective customers speak only English, it does not require businesses to provide translators, or to translate documents such as menus or product descriptions into languages other than English.
The Unruh Civil Rights Act prohibits business establishments from discriminating against prospective customers based on personal characteristics similar to and including the statutory classifications of race, sex, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, marital status, or sexual orientation. This new law adds immigration status, citizenship, and primary language spoken to this list of protected classifications. Business establishments that are subject to the Unruh Act include any type of for-profit commercial enterprise and non-profit entities that serve the business or economic interests of its owners or members.
The Unruh Act does not protect customer misconduct. A business may require that customers who damage property, injure others, or otherwise disrupt business leave the premises. Business establishments can also adopt reasonable restrictions on customers when the restrictions are rationally related to the conduct of the particular business.
While the Unruh Act prohibits discrimination against prospective customers, different state and federal laws prohibit discrimination against employees on similar bases. For example Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on national origin. Similarly, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act forbids discrimination in employment based on citizenship and national origin.
Although the new law does not require businesses to provide services or documents to prospective customers in languages other than English, there are existing California laws that require employers to translate certain legally required notices if ten percent or more of the employees in the workforce speak a language other than English as their primary language. Similarly, existing federal laws require the translation of certain legally required notices whenever a workforce is comprised of a significant portion of workers who are not literate in English.
As a practical matter business owners should consider translating menus, product descriptions and other documents if customers speak a primary language other than English, even though a failure to do so will not violate the Unruh Act. It is also recommended that employers translate key documents such as employee handbooks into the primary language(s) of their employees.