The State of Washington began addressing language barriers in public benefit programs long before any of the other study sites, primarily because of a lawsuit filed in the late 1980s. Since the state signed a detailed consent decree with language access advocates in 1991, language access strategies have continued to evolve. Over the last decade, welfare offices in Seattle have fine-tuned different aspects of its language-access approach, including developing methods to deal with often overlooked language needs occurring during the application process, such as providing timely translation of written materials. Seattle has also begun to address the problem of ever-changing language populations by providing interpretation assistance — at the reception and eligibility levels — through contracted services, rather than by in-house, bilingual staff. The state also certifies bilingual workers in order to ensure that quality interpretation and translation services are provided for agency programs.
At the reception level, the Seattle/Kent office relies on the bilingual capacity of reception staff (which is minimal) or other staff in the office who are asked to interpret on an ad-hoc basis. If this fails, reception staff use interpreters brought by applicants or the private language line as a last resort. The approach at the Seattle/Rainier office is more comprehensive due to the availability of on-site contract translators. (See box, "On-the-Spot Interpretation: Seattle’s Block-Time Interpreters".) Reception staff in the Seattle/Rainier office turn to in-house bilingual staff for interpreter assistance only if on-site contractors are unavailable. As in the Seattle/Kent office, language lines are used only as last resort.
On-the-Spot Interpretation: Seattle’s Block-Time Interpreters
Of our sites, the Seattle/Rainier office has the most comprehensive strategy for providing language services at the reception/intake level. Ensuring language assistance is available at the front-end of the application process complements a larger effort to more provide more up-front services at the reception level.
Although the receptionists at this office are not bilingual, interpretation is provided virtually seamlessly through the use of on-site, on-call contract interpreters called "block-time interpreters." LEP applicants communicate their language to the reception worker who then uses an intercom to immediately reach an interpreter stationed in the reception area.
The block-time interpreters cover ten languages: Arabic, Amharic, Cambodian/Khmer, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Lao/Thai, Oromo, Somali, Spanish, Tegrinnen, and Vietnamese and are available four days a week from 8 a.m. to noon. At the time of our visit, Somali interpreters were available full-time twice a week to meet the high demand for their services, but the office was preparing to scale back this availability because the demand no longer justified these expanded hours.
The Seattle approach is to provide interpretation during the eligibility interview to all limited English speakers through the use of private contractors, unless the applicant happens to be randomly assigned to an eligibility worker speaking their language. Although the Seattle offices we visited have significant numbers of bilingual eligibility staff, LEP applicants are assigned to workers by their last name (not language need) in order to address larger caseload management issues (e.g., making sure that cases are distributed equally across workers)
Providing such extensive language services has also resulted in the state being able to track and document associated costs. For example, Washington’s current contract for interpreter services runs for two years and costs the state $24 million. The state’s LEP Program Manager estimated the cost of providing written translations for languages beyond the seven that are supplied by the state ranges between $50,000 – $70,000 per month.6 State officials noted that while this might seem costly, they believe it is an essential investment to ensure that limited English proficiency individuals have equal access to programs.