ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Two employees at a Whole Foods Market store in Albuquerque say they were suspended last month after complaining about being told they couldn't speak Spanish to each other while on the job — a claim the company says was a misunderstanding.
Bryan Baldizan told The Associated Press he and a female employee were suspended for a day after they wrote a letter following a meeting with a manager who told them 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."
He said Whole Foods officials told them about company policy and issued the suspensions.
But Whole Foods Market Inc. spokeswoman Libba 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.
Letton 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 in a statement.
However, 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."
Friedland said the policy doesn't prevent employees from speaking Spanish to customers who don't speak English, nor does it prevent them from speaking Spanish if all "parties present agree that a different language is their preferred form of communication."
Letton told the AP that in addition to safety reasons, the policy is in place so employees who don't speak Spanish don't feel uncomfortable.
The ordeal comes after New Mexico, the most Hispanic state in the nation, saw two recent cases of Spanish being barred from high school athletic competitions.
Last month, New Mexico Military Institute's Jose Gonzales was penalized a point for speaking Spanish after an on-court official warned him twice to speak only English during a state championship tennis singles match. Sally Marquez, executive director of the New Mexico Activities Association, the governing board for high school sports in the state, said the official was warned not to repeat that action, even though the official was within his right since the association was following the United States Tennis Association rule book during the finals.
In April, an umpire resigned after being accused of trying to ban New Mexico high school baseball players from speaking Spanish during a game. The resignation came after Gadsden Independent School District officials filed a complaint with the association accusing the umpire of telling a first baseman not to speak Spanish during a game in Alamogordo.
Ralph Arellanes, state director of New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizens, said the Whole Foods Market policy violates New Mexico's state constitution, which protects Spanish and American Indian languages. Latino groups will meet soon about a possible boycott of businesses that have similar policies, he said.
Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras