Undercover Program Unveils Language Access Violations in NYC Agencies

A recent undercover operation has revealed widespread noncompliance with New York City’s language access laws among city agencies. The Language Access Secret Shopper (LASS) program, launched in 2010 and conducted by the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) and the Mayor’s Office of Operations, deploys multilingual interns to pose as non-English speakers at various city service centers. Their mission: to evaluate whether these centers provide the required translation and interpretation services.

The latest findings, released last month, are alarming. Over half of the 148 service centers assessed in 2023 were found to be violating Local Law 30, which mandates that city agencies offer translated documents and interpretation services in the city’s ten most common non-English languages. Particularly troubling is that nearly 40% of the centers lacked any translated materials, and a quarter did not offer oral translation services, despite legal requirements.

Advocates like Amaha Kassa, executive director of African Communities Together, emphasize the gravity of these findings. “This is just against the law. I’m glad that the data is public now to illustrate the magnitude of the problem,” he told THE CITY news website. The implications are significant, with nearly half of New York City residents speaking a language other than English at home.

The LASS program originally responded to a 2008 executive order by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with Local Law 30 passed in 2017 to strengthen language accessibility standards. Despite these regulations, compliance remains inconsistent. The Comptroller’s Office has conducted audits since 2017, often finding agencies “generally compliant.” However, the secret shoppers’ experiences paint a different picture, highlighting substantial gaps in service.

A notable portion of these issues arises in health-related settings. Two-thirds of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene sites visited in 2023 failed to comply with language access laws. Advocates argue that this noncompliance places an undue burden on non-English speakers, often forcing children to translate sensitive health information for their parents, a situation that can be both traumatic and prone to errors.

Council Members Julie Won and Sandra Ung, along with advocates like Kassa and Taina Wagnac from the New York Immigration Coalition, are pushing for a community-based program to address these shortcomings. Their proposal, the Language Justice Collaborative, aims to establish a co-op interpreter bank funded by the city. While legislation to start the collaborative passed in December 2022 with an initial grant of $3.8 million, it was excluded from the mayor’s fiscal year 2024 budget. Efforts are ongoing to secure funding in the 2025 budget.

“The program has led to internal enhancements that have made it easier for New Yorkers to take advantage of city resources, regardless of the language they speak,” Francisco Navarro, senior policy advisor with the Mayor’s Office of Operations, wrote in an email to THE CITY. However, the data underscores a persistent “lack of will” among agencies to fully implement necessary language access measures.

As New York City continues to be a hub for migrants and asylum seekers, the need for robust language access programs becomes even more critical. The findings from the LASS program serve as a stark reminder that much work remains to ensure all New Yorkers can access the services they need, regardless of the language they speak.

MultiLingual Staff
MultiLingual creates go-to news and resources for language industry professionals.

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