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As the number of immigrant laborers grows nationwide, experts say interpreters are an increasing factor in helping injured employees get back on the job.
Interpreter costs are a hot-button issue in states such as California, which has a large population of immigrant laborers. However, the matter is becoming more standard for handling workers compensation claims across the country, say risk consultants and interpreters who specialize in such cases.
“It's a basic (human resources) need,” said Rebecca Shafer, president of Amaxx Risk Solutions Inc. in Hartford, Conn. “You need to be able to speak to and communicate with your employees.”
There were 24.4 million foreign-born laborers in the U.S. workforce last year, up from 23.9 million in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hispanics represented nearly half of that population last year, while Asians accounted for nearly 22%.
The increase in workers who do not speak English, or who speak English as a second language, has become apparent in states such as Louisiana.
Paul Buffone, senior vp of risk management services for the Louisiana Workers' Compensation Corp., said about 10% of its claimants now require Spanish interpretation services during the investigation phase compared with “a handful” before 2008. That growth has leveled off recently, but LWCC, the state's largest workers comp insurer, saw an uptick during the cleanup of last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The mutual insurer decided three or four years ago to craft a plan to help non-English-speaking workers, Mr. Buffone said.
Much of that has meant hiring bilingual staff in various departments who can step in to help with claims.
“We got together and said...we need to hire Spanish-speaking people. We need to convert documents so people can have access to things that will help them in regard to safety,” Mr. Buffone said.
The insurer also pays for interpreters from several vendors that assist claimants at about $200 per session. So far, the cost has been “manageable,” Mr. Buffone said.
Interpretation costs have become a point of contention in California. In an en banc decision this year, California's Workers' Compensation Appeals Board ruled that employers need to provide “reasonably required” interpreter services for injured workers during medical treatment appointments. Interpreters are required to prove that their services were necessary before receiving payment.
The California State Compensation Insurance Fund, Travelers Indemnity Co. and other insurers have petitioned the state Workers' Compensation Appeals Board to regulate payment liens for interpreter services in the state. They have argued, in court filings, that the market rate for interpreter services is unclear; that interpreters may not be needed in all types of medical appointments, such as for some massage therapy sessions; and that a fee schedule should be created for interpretation in workers comp cases.
Gilbert Calhoun, president of the California Workers' Compensation Interpreters Assn., said the dispute over interpretation costs comes at a time when there is a growing need for language services in the state, particularly in Southern California.
“You've got the tug of war going on between the two sides over what should be paid for these services,” said Mr. Calhoun, who is based in Studio City, Calif.
STOPS Inc., a Titusville, Fla., company that specializes in workers comp interpretation, has seen 20% growth so far this year, Executive vp Gary Nelson said. The company works nationwide, with most of its interpreters providing service in Spanish and Asian languages, such as Chinese and Vietnamese.
STOPS' pricing can range from $100 to $150 for two hours, depending on the state, while services for rarer languages, such as Somali and its dialects, typically cost more.
Some employers balk at the cost, Mr. Nelson said. But he contends that proper communication can help non-English-speaking employees adhere to a medical treatment plan, and ultimately, cut down on claim costs by getting workers well faster.
“If you miss an appointment, it has to be rescheduled and there's a loss of money involved because you have to pay additional benefits,” Mr. Nelson said.
Ms. Shafer of Amaxx Risk Solutions agreed that interpretation can be an important factor in facilitating workers comp claims for employees who don't speak English.
“It's probably going to be cost-effective for you to do this, because you want to have the proper immediate post-injury procedure,” Ms. Shafer said.
As employers and insurers attempt to manage costs and needs for interpretation, experts expect language services to become an increasing focal point in the workers comp market.
“It's going to continue to be an issue,” said Mr. Calhoun of the California interpreters group.