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Bill Targets Workers Who Speak No English

Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II said his measure aims to protect Virginia employers.
Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II said his measure aims to protect Virginia employers. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 17, 2008; Page B01

RICHMOND, Jan. 16 -- A Republican state senator from Fairfax County has introduced a proposal that would allow a boss to fire employees who don't speak English in the workplace, which would make them ineligible for unemployment benefits.

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Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II said the law is needed because a growing number of employers in Northern Virginia are frustrated that some immigrants never learn English, although they said they would when they were hired.

"The point here isn't to be mean; the point is to allow circumstances to give employers their own ability to hire and fire people who may not speak English," Cuccinelli said.

Some Democrats and immigration rights activists said they were outraged at Cuccinelli, saying the bill demeans the 1 in 10 Virginians who were born outside the United States. They said Cuccinelli's proposal was aimed at new legal residents who aren't native English speakers. Illegal immigrants are already ineligible for unemployment benefits.

"This is the most mean-spirited piece of legislation I have seen in my 30 years down here," Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said.

Cuccinelli's bill is one of dozens this year that seek to address immigration and the growing influence of Hispanic culture in Virginia, including efforts to make English the state's official language.

Cuccinelli, who was narrowly reelected in November, said the bill is aimed at people who work in jobs in which they must interact with the public, such as sales clerks and receptionists.

State and national immigrant rights activists said the bill, as written, could result in some people being fired for speaking to a colleague during a break or over the phone to relatives in a language other than English, causing some critics to wonder whether the measure violates federal law prohibiting discrimination based on national origin.

"Anyone who cares about employee rights and civil rights and any employer who cares about not getting sued should question this bill," said Raul Gonzales, legislative director of the National Council of La Raza, Latino civil rights group in Washington.

Cuccinelli, who says companies are increasingly hiring people without face-to-face interviews, said he is just trying to protect employers from paying higher taxes because of unemployment claims.

In Virginia, employers may fire anyone as long as they adhere to civil rights laws. But if someone receives unemployment benefits, their previous employer might have to pay higher taxes.

"It works like an insurance policy," said Coleman Walsh, chief administrative law judge for the Virginia Employment Commission. "If you don't have any accidents, your premiums don't go up. If you have accidents, you have to pay higher rates."

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