By Suzanne Manneh, New America Media
Enacted in 1973, the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act requires that all state agencies translate materials into any language spoken by 5 percent or more of those served and hire bilingual staff.
Assemblymember Warren T. Furutani (D-South Los Angeles County), who is a strong advocate of the Act said that the audit was requested by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. He said it showed that “California’s bilingual services have not developed much since the previous audit in 1999.”
The audit, conducted by the state and released last week, revealed that the state Personnel Board has not informed all state agencies of their responsibilities under the Act, and has not ensured state agencies conduct language surveys to assess their clients’ language needs.
Eight of the 10 state agencies audited did not have procedures in place to update their bilingual services to reflect the changing needs of their clients.
“Agencies are still not aware of the Act,” Furutani said, "the personnel board is the lynchpin and must make sure the law is followed” he said.
According to the audit, 52 percent of state administrators and 64 percent of local department managers knew of the Act.
Most state agencies audited were also unaware of a key provision of the Act to translate materials explaining services into languages spoken by a substantial number of the people they serve. According to the California State Auditor report: “Only two of the 10 agencies we audited were aware of this requirement. Moreover, only one agency translates these materials into the languages of those individuals who make up 5 percent or more of the population it serves, as the act requires.”
The audit also found that state agencies are also falling behind in providing bilingual services in the many languages spoken in the state. California is one of the most ethnically diverse states, where 40 percent of residents speak a non-English language as their primary language. According to the report, “53 city and county departments have identified a need to provide bilingual staff and translated materials in 33 languages, yet they do not offer any bilingual services for 19 of these languages and provide only limited services for the remaining 14 languages.”
Furutani said lawmakers will hold a hearing in January to discuss recommendations for how to improve bilingual service requirements under the Act.
In the meantime, where do individuals in need language services go for help?
“The role of the CBO is critical,” said Furutani.
“Non profits pick up the state’s slack from the agencies that should be providing resources by state law,” he said.
When Mrs. Li, who requested her first name be withheld for privacy concerns, was laid off from her job as a janitor, she contacted the state (Employment Development Department) to apply for unemployment benefits. Li, a recent immigrant whose English skills are limited, says she contacted the state agency to obtain materials in Chinese (Mandarin), but they only sent her information in English.
She sought help from Wu Yee Children’s Services, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helped translate materials from the EDD and helped Li apply for benefits.
Li says she was able to call the EDD hotline and speak to someone in Mandarin, but that all follow-up correspondence was in English, rather than Mandarin as she had requested.
“Everything she needed was in those letters and she could have missed important deadlines,” said Susan Hsieh of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a San Francisco-based organization that works with immigrants in the city.
She echoed the audit’s findings that these state agencies “have bilingual staff members or telephone interpreters to communicate with clients who do not speak English, but several local agencies have not translated materials.”
Answering critics who say that those needing language assistance do not want to learn English, Furatani says learning English is a process that takes time, and that people should have access to information in the meantime.
“The reality is that it’s a process and our communities do want to learn English,” he said. “They eventually want to understand English language materials, but until they all make that transition, this is a tool to ensure those communities are reached and they participate.”
He added that California has cut funding for ESL programs, reducing opportunities for immigrants to learn English.
Jodie Berger, an attorney with Legal Services of Northern California, said keeping all Californians equally engaged and informed is in the state’s interest because it’s "cost effective" and imperative in an emergency.
“What if there is another flu or [tuberculosis] outbreak?” she said. “How will these communities be informed and obtain the information they need?”