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How New York service centers comply with the law on translating information into different languages: an audit showed that it is very bad


Olga Feoktistova

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Every summer, City Hall hires a small team of interns who speak different languages. They come to service centers in the city and pretend that they don’t speak English. In this way, the mayor's office verifies that agencies provide services in all the languages ​​they are required by city law. The results are disappointing: agencies completely violate language accessibility laws, reports The City.

Secret inspectors come to the staff with a simple question. For example, they want to know if they qualify for certain benefits or participation in a program. The trick is that the inspectors ask about this in a language other than English and thus determine whether the agency has interpreting services available and the relevance of the documents that must be there according to the law.

Disappointing conclusions

Last month, the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs released data on how various agencies fared in undercover audits. The data reflects 148 estimates for 2023 service centers across the city.

As it turned out, more than half of the service centers in 2023 were in some way violating the New York City language access law, Local Law 30 (2008). This law requires that the center have information brochures in the 10 most widely spoken languages ​​in the city, as well as the availability of interpretation. In addition to English, these are Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Korean, Arabic, Urdu, French and Polish.

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In 2023, almost 40% of centers had no translated materials or brochures at all. A quarter of the centers did not provide interpretation services at all.

The most common violation was the lack of documents translated into the 10 major citywide languages. 25% of undercover reviewers who were not provided with interpretation at all used Google Translate. In some centers they were simply told to “come back later” or “find a bilingual person in the waiting room.”

The centers visited by undercover inspectors include city clinics and medical offices, where correct translation is vital. Two-thirds of the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene facilities visited by undercover inspectors in 2023 were not in compliance with the language access law, new data shows.

With nearly half of all New Yorkers speaking a language other than English at home and the number of migrants and asylum seekers rising, advocates say agencies can't meet people's needs using English alone.

Francisco Navarro, a senior adviser in the Mayor's Office of Operations, has led the undercover program since its early days 14 years ago.

“The program has led to internal improvements that make it easier for New Yorkers to use city resources, no matter what language they speak,” Navarro said.

When the secret inspector reports that the service center does not meet the requirements, feedback from the mayor's office begins to work to improve the situation. The City has no regulatory or enforcement authority over these agencies. Local Law 30 requires each agency to create its own language access plan.

Officials are working to create a community program that would provide in-person interpreter services to city agencies.

Perhaps the city will fund the creation of the Language Justice Collaborative, a cooperative bank of translators that would be made up of multilingual community members who can translate for people who don't speak English.

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