From the beginning, the United States has been a multi-cultural nation. As immigrants streamed into the U.S. through the gates of Ellis Island, they brought their culture and languages along with them, earning America the nickname, The Melting Pot. This demographic reality has continued to the present day, as people of different cultures, religions, races, and languages live in our multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic society.
Recent statistics reflect the linguistic diversity of this country. For example, according to a 2007 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, 19.5% of the U.S. population over the age of five speaks a foreign language. Of those speaking a language other than English, more than 60% speak Spanish/Creole; 19% Indo-European; 15% Asian Languages; and 1% other. Nearly 68% of foreign language speakers in the U.S. are between the ages of 18 and 64, and many of these individuals are part of the American workforce. Language diversity among employees can present a variety of challenges related to (among other things) the communication of employee benefits.
Employers with non-English speaking workers must ensure that these employees truly comprehend their benefits programs. Employers need to examine two areas of communications: What is required, and what is good workplace communications practice. The basic required communication piece of an employee benefit package is the summary plan description (SPD). The federal law that governs employee benefit plans, ERISA, does not require that employers provide SPDs in languages other than English. On the other hand, ERISA regulations do require that, in certain situations, an employer must provide within the English-language SPD a notice in another language offering speakers of that language help in understanding their benefits.
In order for an employer to comply with ERISA regulations, the offered assistance does not need to 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.” Furthermore, the employer needs to explain the procedures that employees must follow to obtain such assistance. For example, the notice in the other language could include the name, office hours, and phone number of the plan administrator.
In what situations are employers required to provide this notice? If the plan covers less than 100 plan participants, and 25% or more of the plan participants are literate in only the same non-English language, the employer has to provide the notice. For larger 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. Therefore, if only a very small number of 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, in Spanish and Korean) if the requisite number of workers are literate in only those languages. Many employers with non-English-speaking workers choose to go beyond the SPD requirements to make certain that all workers understand their benefit programs. Steps to consider include:
- Requesting employees who are fluent in both English and the foreign language to assist those who have difficulty with English. This can be especially valuable at benefits meetings, where the rapid flow of a presentation can be overwhelming and hard to follow.
- Translating some written materials into a foreign language. These might include enrollment forms, highlights of the benefit programs as well as comparison charts. Companies that specialize in translation services for business needs could be contacted for this service.
- Opening benefits meetings, including enrollment meetings, to family members. In particular, younger family members are more likely to be fluent in English.
- Having bi-lingual or separate meetings in another language is also an option, but this option could require more time as well as create more expense.
Employers make a large investment in their benefits programs, and employees cannot appreciate these benefits if they don’t understand them. Additionally, complex employee benefits programs can be confusing, even for native English-speakers. Therefore, taking actions to ensure that all employees have an equal opportunity to understand their benefits is an investment that helps employer and employees, alike.