From its founding, the United States has been a multi-cultural and multi-lingual nation. This demographic reality has continued to the present day.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) on language characteristics and literacy illustrate the linguistic diversity of this country. For example, according to one DOE report and based on an analysis of Census Bureau data, during the 1980s, the number of persons age five years and older who spoke a language other than English increased 41%. The most significant increases were in Spanish, Asian, and Pacific Islander languages. The report went on to state that among those who spoke a language other than English at home, 47% said they had difficulty speaking and understanding English. Furthermore, a DOE survey conducted in the 1990s reported that 10% of the population spoke no English at all before entering school.
A disproportionately high number of those reporting difficulty with English were age 25 or older, i.e., work-force age. Language diversity among workers can pose a host of challenges related to (among other things) the communication of employee benefits information.
What must an employer with non-English speaking workers do to ensure these employees truly understand their benefits programs? This question is best examined on two levels: What is required and what is good workplace communications practice.
The basic required communications piece of an employee benefit plan is the summary plan description (SPD). ERISA, the federal law that governs employee benefit plans, does not require that employers provide SPDs in any language other than English. However, ERISA regulations do require that, in some situations, an employer must provide within the English-language SPD a notice in another language that offers speakers of that language assistance in learning about their benefits.
According to ERISA regulations, the offered assistance need not involve written materials, but must be “calculated to provide [the non-English speakers] with a reasonable opportunity to become informed as to their rights and obligations under the plan,” and the procedures that they must follow to obtain such assistance. For example, the notice in the other language could include the name, telephone number, and office hours of the plan administrator.
When are employers required to provide this notice? If the plan covers fewer than 100 plan participants, and 25% or more of the participants are literate in only the same non-English language, the employer must provide the notice. For bigger plans, the notice is required if either 500 or more participants or at least 10% of the participants are literate in only the same non-English language. Thus, if only a few workers are non-English speakers, the notice is not required. Conversely, an employer may need to provide notices in more than one non-English language (for example, Spanish and Vietnamese) if the requisite number of workers are literate in only those languages.
Many employers with foreign language-speaking workers go beyond the SPD requirements to make sure that all workers understand their benefit programs:
- Translate some written materials into a foreign language. These might include highlights of the benefit programs, comparison charts, and enrollment forms. Companies that specialize in translation services for business needs could be contacted for this service.
- Open benefits meetings, including enrollment meetings, to family members. Younger family members in particular are likely to be more fluent in English. Having bi-lingual or separate meetings in another language also is an option, but this may involve more time and expense.
- Call upon employees who are fluent in both English and the foreign language to help those who have difficulty with English. This can be especially helpful at benefit meetings, where the rapid flow of a presentation or give-and-take of a question-and-answer session can sometimes be hard to follow.
An employer makes a huge investment in its benefit programs, and employees cannot appreciate these programs if they don’t understand them. Furthermore, employee benefits programs can be confusing, even for native English-speakers.
Contact us to explore methods by which your company can ensure that your employees have the opportunity to know their benefits. It’s an investment that helps employer and employees, alike.