Let’s face it − navigating government services and benefits can be tough. And for those individuals whose primary language isn’t English, the process can be even more daunting. At the Department of Labor, one of our responsibilities is to ensure that the rights of all workers are protected, including those considered limited English proficient (known as LEP).
In 2000, a presidential executive order required federal agencies to examine any services they provide or support, identify any need for services to those with limited English proficiency, and create a system to provide those services so LEP persons can gain adequate access to them. Since then, federal and state government and other entities have worked together to ensure that LEP communities receive meaningful access to the services and information for which they may be eligible. These efforts are also consistent with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Labor Department’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity regulations found in Section 188 of both the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014.
A recent case underscores how important federal-state cooperation is when it comes to ensuring workers have equal access to government services. After a joint investigation, the Labor Department’s Civil Rights Center worked with the Department of Justice to reach an agreement with the state of Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries to resolve civil rights complaints filed on behalf of LEP workers who speak Bosnian, Cambodian (Khmer) and Spanish. The workers alleged that they were prevented from gaining meaningful access to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries’ workers’ compensation program because that agency did not provide adequate language assistance services. The Northwest Justice Project brought forward the national origin discrimination complaints, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington assisted in the investigation and resolution.
Workers’ compensation benefits are vital to injured workers. They cover medical expenses and paying wage replacement benefits while a worker recovers from a workplace injury. So meaningful access to benefits and understanding of a workers’ compensation program may be challenging when a worker speaks a language other than English and the program does not take reasonable steps to provide meaningful information in other appropriate languages.
To successfully deliver these kinds of services to those with limited English proficiency, a state or other entity must be committed to removing language barriers. Often, this means being aware of the need to coordinate language services across programs and offices. In this particular case, the Washington state agency − working with our Civil Rights Center and the Justice Department − committed to making significant improvements in language assistance services for LEP workers, agreeing to a solution that embodies the spirit of the 2000 executive order. A memorandum of agreement outlines the agency’s dedication to implementing a new language access program, ensuring LEP individuals have full access to its programs, activities and information.
“One of our agency goals is to make it easy to do business with us,” said Washington State Department of Labor and Industries Director Joel Sacks. “This agreement is a reflection of our values and it’s the right thing to do. We want all people living and working in Washington to be able to communicate with us, understand the information we provide and have access to Labor & Industries services.”
Editor’s note: For more information about efforts to ensure LEP individuals can access government services, or to file a complaint, visit LEP.gov.
Naomi Barry-Perez is the director of Labor Department’s Civil Rights Center.