When the pandemic hit in 2020, the Hawaii unemployment office was flooded with calls from thousands of workers who suddenly found themselves without a paycheck. People had to wait hours for a representative to help with their claim. But workers who didn’t speak English well or at all faced another hurdle: communicating with staffers who finally answered their calls.

Honolulu resident and Chuukese interpreter Philios Uruman recalled volunteering countless hours on the phone to help his fellow Micronesian workers access much-needed unemployment payments.

It was frustrating and, he later learned, should have been avoidable. As a state agency, the unemployment office is required to provide meaningful access to services for non-English speaking communities that it serves. The office’s failure to do so in 2020 resulted in five federal civil rights complaints and a 2021 settlement agreement.

Now, the state auditor found the Office of Language Access, which is tasked with ensuring non-English people get access to state services, has largely failed to fulfill the vision the Legislature set out for it when creating the office in 2006.

Princess Ruth Keelikolani Building DLIR.
The unemployment office failed to provide adequate interpretation for non-English-speaking Hawaii workers during the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The auditor said the office hasn’t finalized its administrative rules and wrote that “almost 16 years after it was established, OLA remains a partially formed organization.”

“The result: many activities that are nothing more than paper exercises, with questionable purpose and effectiveness and little connection to OLA’s statutory role,” the auditor concluded in a report released earlier this month.

Amy Agbayani, a Filipina immigrant and longtime advocate for immigrants in Hawaii, says the audit made some excellent points, but she believes the problems with language access are much larger than anything the office is empowered to address. She said the pandemic illuminated how critical providing such language access can be.

“It really is life and death for some things,” she said.

The Audit’s Findings

The audit mainly criticizes the Office of Language Access, which falls under the Health Department, for failing to complete its administrative rule-making process despite a statutory requirement to do so.

“Without those rules to implement, interpret, and prescribe the language access law, OLA does little of consequence to address the language access needs of the state’s limited English proficient population or to ensure meaningful access to state services, programs, and activities,” the audit says.

Aphirak Bamrungruan, executive director of the Office of Language Access, says he cares deeply about this issue as an immigrant from Thailand who moved to Hawaii in his 20s and remembers interpreting for his mother at doctors’ offices. But he says the office is hamstrung by a lack of funding and enforcement power.

The audit contends that finalizing the rules could give the office some teeth, and notes in their absence agencies “have unlimited power and discretion in how – or even whether – they comply with the state’s language access law.”

“There is a law, but there is really no money to make sure that it is implemented fully, completely and appropriately.” — Josie Howard, We Are Oceania

“In many cases, whether intentionally or simply because they know no better, many agencies’ language access plans are not plans at all; rather, as described above, some offer a ‘plan’ about how the agency intends to create a language access plan and others simply repeat the factors listed in the statute that agencies are required to consider in developing their respective plans,” the audit says.

The audit also criticizes the Office of Language Access for not having a certification process for interpreters or making clear whether the interpreters recommended on its website are qualified.

Bamrungruan estimates creating a certification test for a single language would cost $50,000 to $80,000 — a figure that doesn’t include the cost of staff to conduct tests.

Many of the languages spoken in Hawaii such as Chuukese, Marshallese, Samoan, Thai and Visayan do not have a nationally recognized certification program, he noted in his official comments to the state auditor.

“If they want OLA to become the testing center that’s going to require a lot of funding and resources,” he said.

Funding Challenges

Patricia McManaman, former director of the state Human Services department, remembers when the Office of Language Access was created in 2006. She was working in public interest law at the time and says the office was originally envisioned to need at least seven staff members.

Two years after its founding, a recession hit and staff was cut to just one position. The office now has five employees and is in the process of hiring a sixth, but it has never climbed back to that original seven-person capacity, even as its responsibilities have grown.

Meanwhile, the state repeatedly has faced legal complaints about its failure to comply with both federal and state language access laws.

The Legal Clinic Dr Amy Agbayani PhD, Board Member.
Amy Agbayani lobbied at the Legislature this year for more funding for an extra position for the Office of Language Access. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

In 2008, the Human Services agency agreed to improve its language-access policies following a civil rights complaint. In 2010, the state Office of Elections was sued by Chinese-speaking Hawaii voters who said limited translations prevented adequate access to voting. In 2014, the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations entered into a conciliation agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor to improve public communication in non-English languages in the wake of civil rights violations.

The problems have continued through Gov. David Ige’s administration. In 2015 the state Transportation Department settled a lawsuit for failing to translate driver’s license tests into Ilocano, Marshallese and Chuukese. That same year, the Judiciary completed a technical assistance agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve its interpreter services.

A year later, the Public Housing Authority settled a complaint with the state Civil Rights Commission brought by renters who didn’t receive interpreter services during eviction hearings. Despite its 2014 agreement, the Labor Department settled a second complaint last year by the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii for its failure to provide adequate language access during the pandemic unemployment crisis.

McManaman says the failure of state agencies to comply with language access laws ends up costing state taxpayers.

“In addition to not serving people, it is a liability to the state, a fiscal liability,” she said.

Broader Solutions

The audit spells out what needs to happen at the Office of Language Access: complete the rule-making process and develop policies and procedures for fulfilling its responsibilities, such as reviewing and approving state agencies’ language access plans.

Bamrungruan said he hopes to wrap up the rule-making process by next summer. But he’s skeptical about how much of a difference the revamp will make in his office’s authority and how much it will influence to what degree state agencies pay attention to language access laws.

Hawaii service providers who frequently encounter problems with the lack of interpreters at state agencies say better potential solutions exist to prevent non-English speaking Hawaii residents from getting shut out of state services.

Josie Howard, executive director of We Are Oceania who is originally from Chuuk, said during the pandemic, her service organization referred patients who were sick with Covid to isolation and quarantine hotels only to find that English-only surveys were required, which in some cases prevented them from quarantining.

To her, what’s needed is more funding, not just for the Office of Language Access but for state agencies to hire bilingual staffers for full-time positions.

“There is a law, but there is really no money to make sure that is implemented fully, completely and appropriately,” she said. “There has to be money behind it in order for it to work, in order for it to be implemented correctly.”

Dina Shek, who leads the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii, agrees that more funding for multilingual staffers within state agencies would make a huge difference for her clients, who have struggled to access housing, health care and other essential services.

“Anyone who says that it’s too hard or not doable, just look to the community health centers,” she said, pointing out that Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Health Services, where her legal nonprofit is located, hires staff that reflects the community it serves.

Hao Nguyen, deputy director of programs at the Pacific Gateway Center who is originally from Vietnam, says it can be challenging to find capable and qualified interpreters especially in Pacific languages. His colleague Terrina Wong says more recently the organization has struggled to find Ukrainian interpreters to help with an influx of Ukrainians driven from their country by the war with Russia.

“Finding certified interpreters in Ukrainian and Russian has been very, very difficult,” she said. She noted the problem was exacerbated when the University of Hawaii shut down its Center for Interpretation and Translation several years ago, although there have since been other efforts to improve interpreter training.

“We really do need to build capacity in our state for the language access needs that we have and to be able to effectively fulfill all the needs that really have multiplied,” she said.

Need for More Leadership

The lack of funding for the Office of Language Access makes some like Agbayani sympathetic to the office’s struggles.

“When there’s a budget cut, they’re the first to go,” Agbayani said of the office.

She noted state agencies are supposed to comply with federal language access laws regardless of whether the office tells them to in their administrative rules.

“It’s inefficient not to provide the Office of Language Access with the authority and resources because if you don’t then you’re going to get whacked by the federal government and other complaints,” she said.

Agbayani advocated for more funding for the office in the Legislature this year. Her funding efforts helped the office secure a sixth position and brought its budget up to more than $683,000, but a bill that would have directed the office to create annual reports of agencies’ compliance with the law died during end-of-session legislative negotiations.

Both Agbayani and McManaman believe that compliance in general would increase if the governor’s office and attorney general’s office proactively directed state agencies to pay attention to it.

“Let me tell you people pay a lot more attention to communications coming out of the governor’s office than they do an administratively attached obscure government agency,” McManaman said. She expressed gratitude that Ige this year sent a letter to state agencies urging the completion of language access plans but said there’s a need for more.

Wong said that while she wished the audit acknowledged the Office of Language Access’ work providing training and education — particularly during the pandemic — she’s glad it further highlights the needs of Hawaii’s limited-English speaking community.

“Covid-19 has really magnified the gaps,” Wong said.

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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