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Know Your Rights
Source: The Chief
Subject: Language Access
Type: Media Coverage

Language Aid Neglected

A report released last week by a legal advocacy group documented a damning lack of translation services at the city’s 69 Human Resources Administration offices, in violation of a law signed by Mayor Bloomberg in 2003.

Local Law 73 requires the provision of language services at HRA offices, where clients apply for public assistance, food stamps and Medicaid. The report by Legal Services of New York revealed that 66 percent of the offices did not provide translated applications in the city’s six most-commonly spoken languages, despite the fact that those applications had been centrally translated.

Some Rebuffed

About a quarter of the centers told clients that they had to wait for a significant period of time or even come back another day if they needed translation, and at about 10 percent of the centers clients were told there were no translation services available whatsoever.

"There is a larger, systematic problem at HRA," said Amy Taylor, who co-authored the report. "If the laws are not enforced, they are meaningless for New Yorkers. Some front-line workers are unaware of what services should be available."

Advocates said that after the law was passed, about 90 percent of HRA offices were in compliance, but that a lack of vigilance had pushed that percentage down to roughly 65 percent.

Staffers Rude or Wrong

HRA officials responded that they were frustrated that LSNY had the data compiled during the summer but waited until last week to alert them when the report was released. "We are eager to review the specific findings in order to ascertain whether they are accurate," said HRA spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio. "Making our programs accessible to people with limited English proficiency is a priority of this administration."

Advocates and clients at the Dec. 12 City Hall press conference asserted that sometimes HRA employees were rude or gave out inaccurate information. HRA offices are supposed to either have a bilingual Job Opportunity Specialist available or workers are required to call a help line that provides translation services. All centers are supposed to have the translated applications available.

Officials from District Council 37’s Social Services Employees Union Local 371, who represent the JOS workers, said that although they could not verify the findings, they believed that there were problems with translation services at the offices. "We totally support access to language resources for every client who needs them," said Local 371 spokeswoman Linda Schleicher. "It’s a longstanding problem. We want all of the workers to be able to talk to their clients and to give them the best services possible. It’s very frustrating when you can’t communicate with people."

She noted that many Spanish-speaking workers complained that because of the widespread need for translation services, they often had to take on aiding those clients plus their own caseloads. The union also has had a long-running battle to try to negotiate lower caseloads for the workers, but courts have ruled that caseloads were not a mandatory subject of collective bargaining. Union leaders have also tried in almost every bargaining round to win a pay differential for bilingual employees, which would attract more of them and compensate them for the added workload. The city has refused that demand repeatedly.

‘We Need Help’

Wan Sin Ng told the activists gathered at the press conference that her Medicaid benefits were cut last year and she didn’t know why. "We need help," she said, through a Chinese-language translator. "Sometimes I was at the office for four or five hours and no one would pay attention. When I would ask when is it our turn, they would yell at us to go and sit down."

She said that she was told at one point that she needed to bring her own translator, a claim that was in violation of the law. She brought her daughter, who could understand what was being said but could not translate all of the technical language into Chinese.

City Council Members noted that it had been more than four years since the law was passed and asserted that the city should be in compliance. "There should be no language test to get city services," said Councilman Eric Goia.

Several advocates described their clients’ troubles after the press conference. Valerie Gauthier, who works with Haitian-Americans United for Progress, has had to intervene for clients at the 168th St. office in Jamaica, Queens, one of whom lost his Medicaid coverage because he couldn’t get assistance at the center. "Sometimes I will call to ask if there is a translator available, and I am told that they don’t know," said Ms. Gauthier. "They need to educate the Caseworkers."

Clients Turned Away

Lana Khrapunskaya works at the Shorefront YM-YWHA in Brighton Beach. She said that even though the Coney Island office on West 21st St. in Brooklyn had posters stating the right to translation services, many of her Russian-speaking clients are told to come back another day to get services.

Majed Abbadi, who works with the service organization Tamkeen, said that one of his clients never got services unless he went with her to the 350 Jay St. center to translate in Arabic. "But if I go with her, then I am missing all day from the office and I cannot help the other clients," he said.

Erica Rodriguez, who is active with Make The Road New York, said that she too had lost benefits due to a lack of Spanish-language services. "We understand it is not always easy," said Ms. Rodriguez through a Spanish-language translator, "but Mayor Bloomberg signed the bill, and he said that discrimination is illegal."

(Photo caption) CAN’T DO IT HERSELF: A study released last week asserted that about a quarter of the city’s Human Resources Administration offices lacked the translation services required by law. Wan Sin Ng’s Medicaid benefit was cut last year without her knowing. ‘We need help,’ she said, through a Chinese-language translator. ‘I brought my daughter to the office once, but she cannot fully translate everything into Chinese.’

(Photo caption) MAYOR’S MESSAGE MUFFLED: A report released last week by a legal services group revealed that two-thirds of Human Resources Administration offices don’t provide centrally translated applications in the city’s six most-common languages. ‘We understand it is not always easy,’ said Erica Rodriguez (right), through a Spanish-language translator, ‘but Mayor Bloomberg signed the bill, and he said that discrimination is illegal.’