The Application Process For TANF, Food Stamps, Medicaid, and SCHIP. Bilingual Staff


ublic agencies often rely on interpreters who speak the native languages of LEP applicants to help these applicants negotiate the application process. Interpretation services may be provided by in-house agency staff either as part of or in addition to their regular job duties. These services may also be provided by private contractors who are hired solely for the purpose of providing interpretation services. Each of the study sites, except Sedalia, fills some eligibility staff positions with bilingual workers. Seattle is the only site that has bilingual agency staff but also relies primarily on contracted interpreters for language assistance when conducting eligibility determination interviews.

Using bilingual eligibility staff to address language barriers has the added advantage of safeguarding program integrity as eligibility determination can require lengthy and involved applicant-worker interaction, often covering complex information, that affects both eligibility and benefit levels. However, as highlighted in Chapter 3, the application process often involves activities and interactions with staff other than eligibility workers. Therefore, language assistance is often needed at each stage of the application process (e.g., initial intake and screening, in addition to eligibility interviews). While some localities place bilingual staff in reception or screening roles (New York, Dallas, Arlington, and Raleigh), the extent to which bilingual staff are available to cover these functions varies considerably across the sites.

Discussions with program staff, advocates, and applicants indicated that bilingual staff are needed not just at the eligibility interview but also during the initial steps of the application process (e.g., initial reception/intake, screenings, orientations). Otherwise, some expressed concern that some limited English speakers can be deterred from applying before completing the application process. However, agencies can find it difficult to match limited English speakers with bilingual staff at each point of contact during the application process, especially in places where there is substantial language diversity or a complicated application process that involves several steps and interactions with different types of staff.

Given that it is generally infeasible to match bilingual staff with limited English speaking applicants at every conceivable point in the application process, a common strategy is to make bilingual staff readily available to interpret on an as-needed basis. While this may be an effective fallback strategy, it appears to have downsides when used as a primary approach. Most importantly, it diverts workers from performing their own job responsibilities, which may negatively affect staff productivity and efficiency. For example, some bilingual eligibility staff noted that they are routinely pulled away from their own casework — even during interviews with other applicants — to interpret in the reception area or for another eligibility interview. Agency administrators and managers also discussed the difficult management challenges presented when attempting to balance the workloads of monolingual staff against bilingual staff that provide interpretation assistance on an as-needed basis in addition to their regular job duties.

In several sites (Arlington, Dallas, and New York), some bilingual workers voiced reluctance to identify their language skills because they do not want to be asked to perform extra work without additional compensation. Among the study sites, Seattle is the only site with a system for certifying and financially compensating bilingual staff — a strategy employed on a statewide basis.1 When bilingual staff are not compensated for providing interpretation services in addition to their other job duties, the practice of using bilingual staff to interpret on an on-call basis also may be opposed or viewed negatively by unions. In New York City, for example, some staff commented that the union representing eligibility workers advises bilingual staff not to make their language skills known.

As a primary language assistance strategy, relying upon in-house bilingual staff is less practical and effective in localities experiencing a significant degree of language diversity. New needs for language assistance typically appear with each new wave or expansion of immigrant groups. Therefore, to accommodate the continually changing language composition of the applicant and client pool, staffing strategies need to be flexible. However, bilingual individuals interested in and capable of working for welfare agencies may not be readily available. In addition, agencies cannot terminate bilingual staff who speak certain languages simply because there is no longer as much demand for those languages. Because many public agencies’ workforces are unionized, the ability of agencies to adjust the composition of their permanent agency staff to meet each new language need may be further constrained by rules regarding hiring, delineation of job responsibilities, and other union concerns.

A promising alternative strategy is to use private interpreters on a contract basis to provide language services for some functions. Washington State is the only state represented in this study, which uses this approach, although implementation varies somewhat across local offices.2 For example, the Seattle/Rainier office uses private, contracted interpreters at both the initial reception/intake stage and the eligibility interview stage whereas the Seattle/Kent office reserves their use for eligibility interviews. Based on our discussions, it appears that staff and program administrators in Seattle are generally quite pleased with this approach. The primary drawback is that these private interpreters are not trained in agency rules and procedures and staff cannot be certain that the information is fully and correctly translated. However, staff generally stated that the contracted interpreters do a good job and that it is an effective strategy for meeting the challenge of addressing diverse and changing language needs.

This approach may not work as well in sites lacking sufficient interpreters in the community who can be hired on a contract basis. In addition, sites with relatively low demand for interpretation in various languages may find it difficult to justify expenditures for part-time or full-time contract interpreters. It might also seem inefficient to use private interpreters instead of in-house bilingual staff for eligibility interviews because two individuals instead of one are required to carry out a single function. But, in both Seattle offices visited for this study, workers generally said that using private contractors does not seriously increase the length of the eligibility interview. Workers said they make up for the extra back-and-forth of the interpretation by entering information into the case file as their questions are being translated.

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