The Application Process For TANF, Food Stamps, Medicaid, and SCHIP. Language Phone Banks

01/01/2003

Because of constraints on hiring bilingual staff to match the language needs of all applicants, staff often turn to language phone banks to provide interpretation. These language lines may be agency-run but are more commonly privately operated. Of the study sites, only New York City has developed an in-house call center, staffed by experienced eligibility workers, to provide interpretation in the city’s top four languages. Private language lines are used on a limited basis in Dallas and New York City. Although this service is also available in Arlington, Sedalia, and Seattle, workers there reported that they virtually never access it.

The primary benefit of private language lines is their extensive language coverage, which includes interpretation in over 140 languages. But, according to program administrators, private language line calls are expensive. In New York City, there is a call log to record each use of this service, which reportedly discourages use by some workers while others simply opt not to use it because it is too cumbersome and time-consuming. Some workers reported that using the HRA language line instead of an in-house bilingual worker increased the eligibility interview duration on average by 40 minutes.

Another disadvantage with private language lines, as with private interpreters, is that these phone interpreters are not trained in the agency’s programs and jargon. For both the private and agency-run lines, agency staff also noted that using these lines can be problematic on a more basic level because they may not have access to speakerphones that facilitate easy three-way communication. Workers reported frustration and confusion with having to pass the phone receiver between themselves and their clients. According to some advocates and eligibility workers, phone interpretation services also reduce interpersonal contact between workers and applicants, thereby increasing opportunities for misunderstandings.

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