Bilingual workers often merit higher pay

Can They Do That?

Your Money

October 24, 2004|By Carrie Mason-Draffen

Is it legal to pay higher wage rates to bilingual speakers for positions that don't usually require a second language, such as a customer service representative who handles calls within the United States? Such policies effectively discriminate against native employees and certain ethnic and racial groups long indigenous to this country, like blacks and whites, in favor of foreign-born workers and recently arrived groups.

You're going to have to shift your thinking. Skills, including speaking two languages, make you more marketable as an employee. The more skills you have, the greater your marketability.

Being proficient in more than one language allows a customer service rep to reach new markets for a company. And that is the whole purpose of business. So by disdaining higher pay for bilingual abilities, you're looking down on skills that are highly prized in many workplaces.

"Employers need to be able to communicate with the growing Spanish-speaking population or they won't be able to sell to [them]," said Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O'Clock Club, a career counseling service in New York. "It's purely a business decision."

America has become a polyglot nation. Nearly 1 in 5 people, or 47 million residents 5 and older, speak a language other than English at home, Wendleton said. The biggest increases have been in the Spanish-speaking population, whose ranks rose 62 percent between 1990 and 2000, to 28.1 million. Spanish really is the unofficial second language of this country.

Wendleton said her son, Martin, got a clerical job with a law firm while in high school because he knew a little Spanish. "They wanted someone who would make the Spanish-speaking people feel comfortable," Wendleton said. His classmates were working in fast food, but he got an experience to enhance his resume.

Wendleton suggests you channel the energy from your anger to improving your career. Maybe you're interested in a management position at your company; get some experience and apply. Or acquire skills in a whole new area, such as the paralegal field, which Wendleton said is growing.

"It seems as though you could use your energy to move yourself ahead rather than thinking it is unfair that others are moving ahead," she said.

Carrie Mason-Draffen is a columnist for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. E-mail her at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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