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Whole Foods faces boycott over English-only work policy

A Whole Foods Market in Albuquerque, N.M. is shown Thursday June 6, 2013 during lunch time.
A Whole Foods Market in Albuquerque, N.M. is shown Thursday June 6, 2013 during lunch time.Russell Contreras / AP

Whole Foods Market, threatened with a national boycott over its English-only language policy for workers on the job, said on Friday it was reviewing the rules after two Spanish-speaking workers in New Mexico claimed they were suspended for complaining.

The Austin, Texas-based organic grocery chain is re-examining the policy "and it will be the topic of ongoing conversations at an all-leadership conference next week," company spokeswoman Libba Letton said in a statement.

The move comes after two employees at an Albuquerque Whole Foods store said they were suspended for a day after recently complaining about a company rule that forbids them from speaking Spanish to each other while on the job. But Letton said the store launched an investigation based on the claims and determined the employees misunderstood and were not told that they couldn't speak Spanish.

She said the two were suspended with pay for being "rude and disrespectful" in an office. "Their suspension was due to their behavior alone," she said.

Ben Friedland, the company's Rocky Mountain region executive marketing coordinator, said the policy states that all English-speaking workers must speak English to customers and other employees while on the clock, unless the customer speaks another language.

"Team members are free to speak any language they would like during their breaks, meal periods and before and after work," Friedland said.

He said the policy doesn't prevent employees from speaking Spanish if all "parties present agree that a different language is their preferred form of communication."

News of the suspensions and the policy barring workers from speaking other languages while on the clock sparked outrage on social media and among advocates who started online petitions and called for the company to change the rule.

At a news conference outside the Albuquerque store, Ralph Arellanes, state director of the New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), threatened to launch a nationwide boycott of Whole Foods if the company does not change its policy within one week.

"I will give them a period of seven days to implement a new policy...or we will hold them accountable," Arellanes said.

He contends the Whole Foods policy violates New Mexico's state constitution, which protects Spanish and American Indian languages.

Letton, the company spokeswoman, said that during the review of the policy, Whole Foods will speak with various civil rights groups. "We are also in the process of reaching out to groups like LULAC to discuss the issue and hear their perspective," she said.