Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY
Did Whole Foods tell two employees not to speak Spanish to each other on the job?
The employees insist it did - and they say they were suspended from their jobs at a Whole Foods Market store in Albuquerque last month because of this policy.
The company insists that it didn't - that it has no such policy, and that the employees were suspended for "rude and disrespectful behavior," according to Whole Foods spokeswoman Libba Letton.
In either case, the brouhaha is indicative of how issues of language and culture can quickly spark conflict in a nation with a still-evolving multi-cultural population. And an advocacy group, ProgressNow New Mexico, says it is organizing a boycott of Whole Foods and has an online petition that in two hours on Thursday collected signatures of more than 500 people saying they will not shop at Whole Foods until it changes its language policy.
"We want Whole foods to rescind its English-only policy," says Pat Davis, executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico, whose petition is on the MoveOn.org site."We don't think it's appropriate in a state as diverse as New Mexico."
Bryan Baldizan, one of the Whole Foods employees, told the Associated Press that he and a female employee were suspended for a day after they wrote a letter following a meeting with a manager who told them that Spanish was not allowed during work hours.
"I couldn't believe it," said Baldizan, who works in the store's food preparation department. "All we did was say we didn't believe the policy was fair. We only talk Spanish to each other about personal stuff, not work."
Whole Foods officials, however, insist that the two workers misunderstood the real reason for their suspension - which had nothing to do with language, says Letton. "Due to their rude and disrespectful behavior both in an office and in the store in front of customers, they were suspended with pay," she says. "Their suspension was due to their behavior alone."
What's more, Letton says, the store launched an investigation on the claims, and 17 employees who attended the same meeting agree that the employees were never told not to speak Spanish.
Ben Friedland, Whole Foods Market Rocky Mountain Region executive marketing coordinator, said the Austin, Texas-based company believes in "having a uniform form of communication" for a safe working environment.
"Therefore, our policy states that all English speaking team members must speak English to customers and other team members while on the clock," Friedland said in a statement. "Team members are free to speak any language they would like during their breaks, meal periods and before and after work."
But late Thursday, Letton, the Whole Foods corporate spokeswoman, modified Friedland's statement that employees "must" speak English at work. "I say, and he agrees, that his use of the word "must" is an overstatement," she said in an email.
Davis says that Whole Foods needs to quickly get straight what its language policy is -- and to make it crystal clear to employees and the public. "At the moment, their only public statement is that employees must speak English at work."
Contributing: Associated Press