Metro Has Critical Need For Interpreters

Anna Varella, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jan. 7, 2007

On a typical day, JaNean Mitchell is lucky to get a half-hour lunch break at work.

As one of Grady Memorial Hospital’s interpreters, she’s usually on the run, crisscrossing the building to go wherever a Spanish-speaking patient needs help communicating.

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Then Mitchell was dispatched to the birthing center to interpret for a woman in labor and her husband. On her way, she passed a sign on the wall that announces in English, “You have rights as a Grady Health System Patient.”

Next to it, the same message is posted in Spanish.

Grady spends about $800,000 a year on services for people who speak limited English, according to Sandra Sanchez, director of the Department of Multicultural Affairs.

That pays for about two dozen interpreters, including part-timers, plus another dozen positions devoted to community outreach and other efforts to serve the international community. That figure doesn’t include the costs of running the hospital’s International Medical Center, which employs multilingual staff.

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The need is clear, and growing fast.

Census shows need

Metro Atlanta has more than 300,000 people who speak English less than “very well,” according to 2005 Census Bureau estimates, up from an estimated 242,198 in 2002, the first year the census asked the question. A little more than two-thirds are native Spanish-speakers.

Statewide, the census estimates that roughly 470,000 people in Georgia speak English less than “very well,” up from about 330,500 who fell into that group in 2002. That’s an increase of about 42 percent in just three years.

Though officials in Cherokee County recently adopted an ordinance declaring English as the official language and some state legislators want to curb the use of other languages in state government business, the reality is many of the agencies that offer forms in other languages or provide interpretation services are following the requirements of federal law.

Any agency that receives federal funds, including state and local governments and private and nonprofit agencies, are required to take “reasonable steps” to ensure that people with limited English skills have “meaningful access” to their services. The requirement is rooted in Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits unequal treatment of people based on national origin.

Federal court rulings have established that non-English speakers have a right to interpretation services when they go to trial. And in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order to push federal agencies and other recipients of federal funds to improve services for people with “Limited English Proficiency.”

A federal government Web site—LEP.gov (“LEP” meaning “Limited English Proficiency”)—is devoted to offering guidelines on how to meet the requirement. And a visit to Web sites for federal agencies shows translated versions such as “El IRS en Español” and “CDC en Español.”

In 2002, the Office of Management and Budget attempted to put a price tag on such efforts nationwide. The OMB estimated the cost of interpretation for doctor and dentist appointments, hospital stays and emergency room visits at roughly $268 million a year.

The report, which did not attempt to tally the cost to all agencies, also estimated that foreign language services related to the food stamp program are roughly $25 million a year. It noted that language services could have some benefits that are hard to quantify, such as helping people to get medical help earlier, rather than waiting until they are sicker and more expensive to treat.

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And in other cases, the cost is pushed to the local level.

In metro Atlanta, state and local officials offer some examples:

o Cobb County schools spent close to $1.2 million last year on services for families who don’t speak English. That includes contracted services plus salary and benefits for 64 staff interpreters—called “facilitators”—who speak Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Haitian Creole, French, Russian and Ukrainian. The bill has nearly tripled in just five years. In the 2001 budget year, the school system spent nearly $343,000 and had just eight in-house interpreters.

o Gwinnett County spent nearly $539,000 in 2005 to provide interpreters in the courts. That’s more than double the amount the county spent in 2000, when it paid close to $215,400 for interpreters, who are hired as needed for specific cases.

Assistant District Attorney Stephen Fern says the need has grown “exponentially” in recent years. “We can’t get through a calendar anymore without an interpreter,” Fern said.

o The state Division of Family and Children Services estimates that it spent about $346,000 in 2006 for interpretation services in the area that includes metro Atlanta.

Using phone for help

While some agencies hire staff interpreters, or recruit multilingual staff, many rely on California-based Language Line Services.

The company, known for its over-the-phone translation services, says it is the single largest provider of foreign language services to government agencies in Georgia.

Company officials say that government agencies in the metro area most frequently request help with Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Portuguese, French, Turkish and Arabic. The company works with about 150 public agencies in Georgia, roughly 50 of them in metro Atlanta, said Greg Holt, the government markets manager.

Because Language Line is privately held, company officials declined to offer details on the dollar value of contracts with metro area governments or specifics on the growth of the company’s business with Georgia’s public agencies. Company officials did say they are trying to hire more interpreters in Georgia, hoping to increase their base of interpreters in the state by 65-70 percent.

Others who work in the translation business agree that demand is booming in metro Atlanta.

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The need for Asian language translation services also is on the rise in the metro area.

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Even Grady Hospital, which has six translators on duty during peak hours, could use more people with foreign language skills, said Sanchez, who oversees the translators.

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