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Still Lost in Translation: Examining City Agencies' Compliance With Local Language Access Laws

Still Lost in Translation: Examining City Agencies' Compliance With Local Language Access Laws

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Please click on the link below for the pdf version of the report, "Still Lost in Translation." Note: File may take a few seconds to download.


Make the Road New York (MRNY) and The New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) led a campaign and were instrumental in passing the two laws—Local Law 73 and Executive Order 120—that collectively call for city government agencies to provide free translation, interpretation and other communication assistance services to limited-English-proficient (LEP) New Yorkers. Local Law 73 was due to be fully implemented over the course of 2009, whereas Executive Order 120 required all impacted City agencies to provide language services and have a coherent implementation plan in place by January 2009. With the generous support of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, MRNY and NYIC in partnership with Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York (KCS), and South Asian Council for Social Services (SACSS) surveyed individuals who had interacted with staff of the Human Resources Administration (HRA), Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD), and New York City Police Department (NYPD) to assess how well government agencies were implementing language access programs. By monitoring the implementation process, MRNY and NYIC hoped to identify areas of progress as well as obstacles that have prevented the legal mandates embodied in Local Law 73 and Executive Order 120 from being fully realized.


In brief, we found that:

  • Many agencies are failing to provide language assistance to LEP New Yorkers. HRA failed to provide language assistance to 44% of those surveyed, NYPD failed to provide services to 67% of those surveyed and HPD failed to provide services to 61% of the LEP individuals surveyed.
  • Limited English proficient respondents were frequently unaware of the availability of language services.
  • There is great disparity in the quality of language access services between language groups, between boroughs, between agencies and among the three Human Resource Administration programs, there are significant differences between the different HRA programs.

               - Queens-based offices provide the best services overall.

               - Speakers of Korean and South Asian languages are suffering from particularly poor services.

               - Spanish-speakers have access to the best services, although significant language barriers remain.

               - Overall, Medicaid offices are better at providing broad language assistance services than both Food Stamp and Job Center/Public Assistance offices. Medicaid and Food Stamps offices were best at providing direct assistance.

  • There have been some positive signs regarding the implementation of language access plans.

                - Survey participants noted that when they did receive language access services they were generally of high quality.

                - Nearly 60% of respondents reported receiving some form of assistance at HRA offices. However, far fewer received assistance at HPD or NYPD.


Based on the conclusions presented throughout this report, we have developed the following recommendations which would help the New York City government come into compliance with local and federal laws:

Increase Access

  • Develop roaming welcome/greeter personnel to help clients navigate the agency. This staff person would greet people as soon as they enter the building before going through security.
  • Match LEP individuals with bilingual caseworkers who speak their primary language. This can be done by permanently coupling LEP individuals and bilingual workers, or by creating standing pools of bilingual workers who speak specific languages. When an LEP claimant arrives at an HRA office for an appointment, or to seek assistance, s/he should be automatically matched with a bilingual caseworker who speaks their language.
  • Ensure that agency-generated documents are translated into client’s primary language (in the required or covered languages) and that all interactions with agency staff are interpreted.
  • Provide equitable access to all forms, pamphlets, and fliers in all of the primary languages.
  • Increase community outreach and public education.
  • Improve services to South Asian clients, such as by focusing hiring efforts on individuals who speak relevant languages and/or have experience working with South Asian communities.

Improve Signage

  • Signs indicating the availability of language access services should be larger and better placed; for example, at entrances (before security) and wherever clients routinely interact with staff.

                  i. Audit signage throughout the facility in the next three months

                  ii. Standardize adequate signage throughout facilities within six months

                  iii. Commit to conducting facility audits annually.

Improve Staff Training

  • Provide agency staff with improved training on providing language access. Mechanisms may include, but are not limited to:

                   i. Printed guides distributed to all staff

                   ii. Printed guides included in new staff training materials

                   iii. Annual trainings conducted for all staff

  • Issue a training plan that will include the training of all frontline workers within one year (and at regular intervals thereafter) on:

                    i. Agency language access policies

                    ii. Procedures to obtain interpreters/translated documents

                    iii. Diversity and cultural competence issues Increase Accountability

  • Issue letters or directives from the Commissioners of HRA, HPD and NYPD stating:

                     i. All LEP clients have right to interpreter

                     ii. No one should be told to bring someone to interpret with them

                     iii. If no bilingual staff available, use language line

                     iv. No one should be turned away because they cannot communicate in English

                     v. No one should be made to wait unreasonably long for an interpreter

  • Add quality of provision of language access services to staff performance evaluations
  • Create incentives for staff who use multiple language skills during the course of their work, and develop a training and certification system to ensure that agency staff are qualified to provide interpretation before they are tasked with interpretation duties.
  • HRA agencies should institute an annual audit process to assess the provision of language services such as an on site “secret shopper” or random testing system. The Mayor’s Office of Operations should review the audit process and results.
  • The Mayor’s Office of Operations should conduct an annual survey of clients to assess availability, quality and timeliness in the provision of language services.

Increase Transparency

  • Make public the names of the LESA Liaisons and Language Access coordinators and post in all offices with contact information.
  • Present advocates with a Monitoring Plan that will include, in addition to what is in Language Plan, a case file review. This would include the random review of 400 cases citywide that are coded as LEP to determine compliance with LL73, including whether translated notices were sent over the past 6 months and whether interpreters were provided in-person and on the telephone. An additional 350 cases which are not coded as LEP should be reviewed to determine whether the cases were properly coded and whether language services and documents were provided in the client’s language when appropriate.
  • Commit to quarterly meetings with MRNY, NYIC, and other advocates to report on progress of the above steps.
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