Following the WA Legislature isn't easy for non-English speakers

Interpreter services are available but difficult to access. Lawmakers and advocates want to change that.

Sen. Rebecca Saldaña interprets

Sen. Rebecca Saldaña interprets for a Spanish-speaking agricultural worker at a public hearing who was voicing support for a bill that would enable employers more flexibility with an overtime threshold for agriculture workers. (Courtesy of TVW)

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The Washington Legislature provides interpreters upon request for people with limited English proficiency, but figuring out how to get that service can be a real challenge.

Interpreter information is hidden on the legislative website under a section titled “Americans with Disabilities Act Information.” Someone who speaks a language other than English but isn’t disabled may never find it. 

Some advocates and members of Washington’s ethnic communities, including those with limited English proficiency, wonder how committed the Legislature is to hearing from all of Washington’s people.

“I just don’t think there’s vested interest in making sure our political process is inclusive for those with limited English proficiency,” said Shomya Tripathy, director of policy and civic engagement for the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS).

The Seattle-based organization provides services for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in King County and throughout the Pacific Northwest. The more than 30,000 people the organization serves speak 40 different languages. 

The issue of interpreters for legislative hearings came to light recently during a Senate hearing on a bill that could change the way farm workers are paid. Several workers more fluent in Spanish than English signed up to testify, but some were unaware they could ask for an interpreter to be present. A lawmaker fluent in both Spanish and English stepped up to help in the moment, but because she had questioned workers’ understanding of the bill, some industry advocates were not pleased.

While language interpreters are available for committee hearings, they’re not widely used. The state Senate, for example, has gotten fewer than five to 10 requests per session since 2020, according to Sarah Bannister, secretary of the Senate. To put that number in perspective, during the 60-day 2022 legislative session, more than 3,000 people testified at Senate committee hearings. 

The infrequent use of interpreters, community leaders say, indicates a lack of awareness of the availability of the service and a lack of trust that interpreters will properly serve those residents with limited English proficiency. 

It doesn’t mean there isn’t a need: U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that a sizable percentage of Washington residents have limited proficiency in English and speak another language at home. Among the more than 1.13 million Washington residents in 2021 born outside the U.S., 42.2% spoke “English less than very well,” compared to just 1.6% among U.S.-born residents. 

Even among the nearly 560,000 Washington residents who were naturalized American citizens — and can vote in elections — 34.9% said they had limited English proficiency, according to the Census. 

Judy Jenner, a federally certified court interpreter for Twin Translations in Las Vegas, said it’s already challenging for native English speakers to have “meaningful participation” in civic settings because of the jargon and the possibly unfamiliar procedures. Language barriers add another level of difficulty. Jenner is also the spokeswoman for the American Translators Association, a trade group for translators and interpreters. (While the average person may use “interpretation” and “translation” interchangeably, professionals say interpreters work with spoken language while a translator works with written items.) 

“These challenges are further compounded when a person with limited English proficiency is trying to participate in the process because they are even less familiar with these linguistic and procedural idiosyncrasies,” Jenner said.

Demonstrators hold signs and flags during a Seattle rally organized by workers from Ostrom Mushroom Farms on November 20, 2022. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

Who should step in?

A Senate Labor & Commerce Committee hearing on Feb. 9 illustrated the need for interpreters: Several agricultural workers signed up to testify remotely on a bill that would modify overtime provisions for agriculture workers. Many of them opted to testify in Spanish, but just one testified with a certified interpreter. Others depended on family members, co-workers or community organizers.

Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for United Farm Workers, recited translated testimony from other farm workers who couldn’t attend the hearing. And at one point in the hearing, a group of workers provided remote testimony — via Zoom —  in Spanish without any interpreter handy.

That prompted Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, to interpret for them. Saldaña said she took action when she did not see an interpreter readily available: “I wanted to make sure their voice was heard.”

Members of agricultural trade groups said Saldaña did not accurately interpret the testimony to indicate the workers’ explicit support of the bill. The legislation, which ended up stalling in committee, would have allowed agricultural employers to select 12 weeks during which the threshold for overtime would increase from 40 to 50 hours a week. The groups also took issue with Saldaña, who is vice chair of the committee, questioning whether workers fully understood the bill. 

Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima), a ranking member on the committee, said that he felt Saldaña was trying to help. The workers had planned to speak in English but switched to Spanish. 

“To me, there wasn’t enough communication on what was going to happen,” King said. 

For Saldaña, who represents the 37th District, which includes several Seattle neighborhoods with majority-minority populations, the incident spoke to the ongoing challenges of engaging those with limited English proficiency in the legislative process. 

The committee hearing wasn’t the first time Saldaña had had to step in to provide interpretation.

“The way it’s set up, you have to proactively make that ask [for language interpretation],” Saldaña said. “It’s something that often falls through the cracks.” 

On the Washington State Legislative website, those seeking to testify during a public hearing can request an interpreter by contacting the American With Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator of either chamber. 

Bannister, the Senate secretary, said that in recent years the Legislature has worked to steer away from depending on multilingual staff or legislators, like Saldaña, to interpret, and instead to contract with trained interpreters. The Legislature can access service providers who can interpret in some 300 languages. 

The most common requests are for American Sign Language, or ASL, and Spanish, but the Senate has also received requests from those who speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Amharic, Somali and Vietnamese, Bannister said. 

Being a trained interpreter goes beyond being able to speak and understand a language, said Jenner, the American Translators Association spokeswoman. 

“Interpreters are listening, processing, understanding, converting language, and then conveying it all at the same time, often about very complex topics with specialized terminology that many fully bilingual people do not know in one or both their languages,” Jenner said.

She said that improper interpretation could impact a person’s ability to participate in the civic process, a right afforded under the Civil Rights Act. 

“There is a risk that the individual with limited English proficiency won’t be understood or won’t understand, which can have a serious impact on them,” she said. 

Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, who represents the 37th district, speaks to demonstrators during a Seattle rally organized by workers from Ostrom Mushroom Farms on November 20, 2022. The workers, from Sunnyside, Wash., gathered outside Metropolitan Market in Lower Queen Anne to call attention to their efforts to unionize. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

Beyond interpreter availability

Community organizers say that to generate more civic engagement from those with limited English proficiency, the Legislature should do much more beyond merely making language interpretation available.

Strater of United Farm Workers believes legislators should proactively make interpreters available if they know of an issue that would impact those who could testify or participate but have limited English proficiency.

“If you’re talking about a farm-worker issue in Washington State … you’re going to need Spanish [interpretation],” she said. 

Derek Lum, policy and advocacy manager for the Seattle-based Interim Community Development Association, said the Legislature could do other things to promote civic engagement for all. Lum’s organization works on housing and community development issues in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. 

He suggested proactively seeking translated written testimony or providing a separate forum conducted in an interested community group’s native language.

Tripathy of the ACRS recommends making more effort to identify those interested in a given issue, then finding ways to help them articulate their thoughts to legislators and other government leaders.

“You have to have those preexisting relationships,” Tripathy said. “You can’t just slot them in as speakers.” 

Joseph Lachman, policy manager for the ACRS, said it has brought more than 1,000 people to the Legislature for events where Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander residents can engage with legislators, and where the organization can identify residents interested in engaging more in the legislative process, including testifying at committee hearings. 

Lachman said the ACRS prefers staff members to interpret, because they can work with an individual on their testimony ahead of time and ensure their thoughts come across accurately to legislators.  

At this point, the ACRS is not likely to utilize interpreters provided by the state without assurances a person could speak with that interpreter ahead of time, he said. 

“99 percent of the time, we’re prepping folks way ahead of time,” Tripathy said. “Otherwise, what they’re trying to say doesn’t come through. We don’t want to risk ruining people’s first experience talking to the legislature.” 

Bannister, the Senate secretary, said legislative staff hears that feedback and will work with their vendors to improve future interpretation efforts. She also notes that access to interpretation services has become easier, and staff can secure interpreters with a short turnaround. 

For Tripathy, the Legislature can do much more to show they’re committed to allowing those with limited English proficiency to participate fully in the process; for example, by providing information — including on interpretation services — in multiple languages. This would build trust and awareness in the state’s language interpretation offerings. 

“I don’t know if [the Legislature] is committed to the trial and error to transform the system to make it inclusive for LEP folks,” Tripathy said. “I don’t know how genuine it is unless we see more and more shifts.” 

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