June 25, 2016
By Hayat Norimine
In a small office in downtown Kelso, Spanish interpreters field phone calls and walk-in clients all day. The clients ask for help on a myriad of everyday chores, from reading junk mail to paying traffic tickets.
The Ethnic Support Council on Oak Street in Kelso is facing its highest demand it’s ever had for Spanish services. The council’s three full-time interpreters have billed 143 hours in the first five months this year — more than the total hours in 2014 and a 60 percent rise from the same period last year.
“It shows that we’re needed,” said Bill Reade, executive director of the Ethnic Support Council. “It’s a double-edged sword because if the demand increases ... we don’t want to get into a situation where we can’t provide what they need.”
The need is apparent statewide. Last year the Health Care Authority spent $13.4 million on interpreting services for more than 300,000 Medicaid appointments. A little over 100,000 came from Spanish-speaking clients. The program has grown drastically since 2012, when the HCA only spent $1.1 million for 27,000 appointments.
Reade said much of the rise in demand at the Ethnic Support Council came from Columbia Wellness for children’s counseling services. The staff, however, sees a serious need for more medical interpreters for adults who may not have insurance.
A changing population
Cowlitz County’s Hispanic and Latino population rose from 7.8 percent in 2010 to 8.6 percent in 2015, according to U.S. Census estimates. The Hispanic population is the largest in Woodland, at more than 16 percent.
In Kelso, 2010 Census data showed more than 13 percent of the population lived in non-English speaking households and more than 11 percent of the population was Hispanic. That number has grown significantly; Kelso School District data showed a 14-percent rise in Hispanic students since 2011.
Many of those children are bilingual. Jovita Potter, one of the interpreters at the Ethnic Support Council, said when they assist at Columbia Wellness counseling appointments, interpreters are most often needed for the parents.
But the state also sees a need in other languages, primarily eight languages: Spanish, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Cambodian and Laotian. In 2012 Washington was in the top 10 states to accept refugees from around the world.
Southwest Washington years ago had a high demand for Asian languages, as well as Russian and Ukrainian after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Ethnic Support Council was founded in 1989 by immigrants from Southeast Asia, primarily from Vietnam and Cambodia.
Years ago the Council offered services in other languages such as Cambodian, Russian and Vietnamese through a work-study program from Lower Columbia College bilingual students. Eventually the organization could no longer afford the program due to budget cuts, and the demand for Spanish interpreting services rose.
Sometimes medical interpreters can be difficult to schedule during a doctor’s appointment. Other times, Spanish speakers ask their children or other family members to translate instead of waiting for a qualified interpreter.
Professionals in the field said that becomes a serious problem. Vazaskia Crockrell, manager of Health Care Authority’s interpreter services program, said those communication mistakes can be fatal.
“It increases the risk of medical errors, incorrect procedures, health impacts,” Crockrell said. “If they’re delivering the wrong information, the impact to our clients could be severe. The impact could even be life-threatening.”
The Health Care Authority fills 95 percent of interpreting demands for Medicaid appointments, Crockrell said, but she is still constantly recruiting medical interpreters. She said she’s hopeful that with diversity increasing, there will also be more qualified interpreters.
Luisa Gracia, co-chair of the Court Interpreter Division for the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society, interprets for courts, medical and social services. She said testing standards for medical interpreters are “a joke” but are improving.
She said the use of family members for doctor’s appointments may have been a reason medical interpreters need fewer credentials than court interpreters. Many Spanish speakers ask their bilingual child to interpret a doctor’s diagnosis, for example, instead of requesting a professional. That discourages the state from requiring more qualifications, she said, despite how important it is.
“A kid cannot really tell you what the doctor is saying,” Gracia said.
Those standards for medical interpreters have improved over the past five years, Gracia said, since medical interpreters unionized in 2010. Last year DSHS began requiring medical interpreters to take continuing education classes and training every four years to keep their credentials intact.
The pay is also significantly higher for court interpreters at $45 per hour, but medical interpreters will get paid $38 an hour starting in July — a 50 cent raise. Gracia said it’s a step in the right direction.
“I think the changes are going to be good and it will have a big impact on the quality of interpretations,” she said. “The standards will be much more professional, quite frankly.”
At the Ethnic Support Council, some interpreters are getting their first taste of the job. Reade said the Council has often become a training ground for bilingual workers who haven’t had experience interpreting.
David Torres, an AmeriCorps service member and interpreter at the ESC, only began interpreting last year and fell in love with the work. He said he wants to get certified in court interpreting this summer.
Torres’ AmeriCorps service at the ESC got renewed for a second year. He may stay for up to four years, but he said he will continue to help after his service even if he isn’t paid.
“I enjoy what I do, the people that I help,” Torres said. “I’ll still be Jovita’s sidekick even after my next year.”
On top of billed hours, at least half of the Ethnic Support Council staff’s time is spent offering interpreting skills for free, according to the organization’s data from October 2014 to September 2015. The staff said their clients travel from as far as Chehalis, Centralia and Woodburn, Ore., south of Portland, to get help.
Potter has been a Spanish interpreter for more than 20 years. She said it’s important to develop a relationship with the client and make them feel comfortable.
“That’s very important to at least develop a trust,” she said.
Kathryn German, president of the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society and a Spanish translator, said that trust can often be broken quickly. She said she knows clients who get offended when they see “absolutely horrible” translations using Google Translate on state websites.
“When a person encounters a really bad translation, they just feel intrinsically devalued,” German said. “We want to build trust and make people feel like part of the community, so that eventually they do learn the language well and become active participants in society.”
Reade said the Ethnic Support Council doesn’t have any plans to expand its interpreting services. He said the organization still struggles with maintaining day-to-day operations.
Ideally, Reade wants to implement more programming at the Ethnic Support Council that would address more long-term problems and help immigrants adapt to the mainstream population.
“I would like to be able to provide more services that are not just bandages to get somebody out of a problem right now, but put them on the road to economic viability,” Reade said.
Source: The Daily News