Posted on May 27, 2016

Language Barriers in HR

It’s not uncommon these days to have employees who don’t speak English or have difficulty understanding it. But those employees are just as eligible for benefits as the rest of your staff and it’s important that they understand their rights and obligations.

The federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which covers a wide range of employee benefit plans, requires businesses to provide a summary plan description to all employees. And while the law doesn’t require you to translate the plan description into writing¬†in other languages, in some situations you are required to include a foreign language directive that offers foreign-language speakers assistance in understanding your programs.

You are obliged to provide the foreign language notice:

  1. If fewer than 100 employees participate in your plan and 25 percent of them are literate in only the same non-English language.
  2. If either 500 participants, or 10 percent of all plan participants, are literate in only the same non-English language.

So if only a few employees are non-English speaking, the notice is not required. On the other hand, an employer may need to provide notices in more than one language (for example, Spanish and Vietnamese) if the requisite number of employees are literate in only those languages.

The notice must tell employees that help is available and how to get it. For example, an effective notice might include the name, address, phone number and office hours of the plan administrator.

This, of course, is the minimum, and many employers take additional steps, including:

  • Translations. Some companies provide translations of the entire summary plan description (or at least the highlights), comparison charts and enrollment forms. If you opt for this, use a translation company to ensure that nuances are correct and certain words such as “coverage,” “blanket” and “umbrella” are properly translated.
  • Open benefits meetings. It can be helpful to include English-speaking relatives or friends at meetings explaining benefits. Bilingual or separate meetings in another language are also an option, although this is likely to involve more time and expense.
  • Colleague assistance. Some companies ask employees who are fluent in both English and another language to help those who have difficulty with English. This can be helpful at meetings where it can be difficult to follow the rapid flow of presentations and question-and-answer sessions.

Employee benefit programs can be difficult to understand even for those for whom English is their native language. Your company makes a large investment in its benefits, so ensuring they are understood can help avoid complications and help make sure employees appreciate them.