BOISE, Idaho — An Idaho agency responsible for enforcing state and federal anti-discrimination laws is bolstering its verbal and written translation abilities to make sure individuals with limited English skills have access to services.
The Idaho Human Rights Commission last week launched the Language Access Plan that includes having half of its 10-member staff fluent in both Spanish and English, and available during regular business hours.
The agency is also offering live phone access to professional interpreters speaking more than 200 languages to help answer questions.
"Essentially, any language that is spoken here in Idaho, we have the capacity and the ability to provide that service," said Ben Earwicker, the agency's director.
Additionally, individuals can request help with translating documents. Earwicker said many people whose first language isn't English can communicate in English and one or two other languages but prefer documents in their native language.
About 80% to 85% of verbal and written translation is for Spanish, Earwicker said, with the rest split among French, Russian, Arabic and African languages.
"All Idahoans deserve to understand the protections afforded to them and have meaningful access to our services," said Lindsy Glick, a civil rights investigator with the agency who helped develop the language program. "Our new Language Access Plan demonstrates this dedication."
The commission investigates possible discriminatory cases involving employment, housing, education and public accommodations.
The commission is also in charge of handling complaints under federal law referred to them by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and providing information on how organizations can prevent potential hostile or discriminatory workplaces.
Earwicker said his agency receives about 2,500 inquiries annually with about 500 formal complaints filed.
About 90% of the complaints involve employment. Earwicker said the top complaint, about 50% of all filed complaints, relate to disabilities. The majority of those involve accommodation in the workplace for a disability, either physical or mental. A smaller percentage is for such things as access to a business or public area.
Other discrimination complaint categories include race, color, sex, national origin, religion, and protections for employees older than 40. An 8th category is retaliation against someone involved in a complaint.
"We have a very proactive approach and a collaborative approach when there is a charge filed," Earwicker said. "Businesses and organizations are typically willing to figure out what happened and how to make it better."
He said that about half of discussions come to an impasse, and then a lawsuit can be filed.
"Unfortunately, we do see extreme examples" of discrimination, he said. "Whether it's sexual assault in the workplace or harassment due to religion."
But those tend to be the exception, he said.
"What I think distinguishes Idaho from other states is generally when there is an issue, the organization and people involved are willing to address it."