There were 48.4 million Hispanic people in the U.S. as of 2009, making it the largest ethnicity in the nation. On top of it, Hispanics make up 14.8% of the civilian labor force. Projections suggest that "language minority students" (those who speak a language other than English at home and who have varying levels of proficiency in English) will comprise over 40% of elementary and secondary students by 2030.

Although employers have been responding to changing workforce demographics for more than a decade through a number of ways - toolkits, training sessions, more diversity in hiring - rising health care costs also have raised the stakes for creating successful multicultural benefits communication campaigns.

For example, some bilingual employees might not even know they have a health benefit in the first place, or what open enrollment is - a startling lack of knowledge that could produce a sicker, less productive population.

Jim Kohler, director of communication and change management at Towers Watson, has first-hand experience working with large employers who see a potential return on investment for putting resources into making sure non-native-English-speaking employees understand their benefits options.

"The organizations that I work for, they're doing this because they care about the employees and the benefits are important," he says. He said organizations are focusing their efforts on the HR function and benefits, "where people need to make a decision and need to bring [information] home and share with the family."

 

Don't get lost in translation

Kohler says creating effective multicultural/multilingual communications campaigns can be very expensive - it's not just printed material costs; it's also call center investments in hiring multilingual representatives. "[Employers aren't] required to do it, but they feel it's important to do it so they know it's a piece of the overall total rewards package."

Indeed, employers are not mandated to provide benefits materials in any particular language, though with the employer mandate under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, employers will have to automatically enroll all workers, no matter their language. For instance, in Mexico, public care is either fully or partially subsidized by the federal government, depending on a person's employment status.

For employers with a sizeable population of workers native to Mexico, employees "might not know that [a] primary way of getting insurance [in the United States] is through the employer," and not understand they've been auto-enrolled in a U.S.-based benefit program, says Daphna Gans, a research scientist at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. She say the key to successfully communicating with a non-native-English-speaking population is knowing you have them in the first place, and then employing line managers who work on the ground and can help further translate materials.

Kohler says an essential part of effective communication is in educating new employees about the health care system in the United States - that an employee can opt to take coverage but pays a monthly premium.

Speaking to empowered managers and strong education efforts, Kohler says that in the fast-food industry, "managers are usually multilingual because of the simple fact that the individual needs to manage the store day to day. That person becomes the de facto spokesperson for the benefit plans," he says. "We have to [provide more benefits information to managers] because they have direct contact, and if [employees] have questions their first mode of contact is the restaurant manager."

These efforts go beyond just open enrollment, with many employers focusing on bringing a multicultural/multilingual approach to wellness programs as well. John Jurich, national vice president of business development at Provant Health Solutions, works with employers who need to convey basic issues like cholesterol levels and what a biometric screening is to workers who don't speak English as a first language. He says employers in need of such translation services account for about 5% of Provant clients.

"The country is a melting pot, and ... a lot of times what we run into with biometric screenings is that's it's [employees'] first introduction to any kind of health care in this country," he says. Provant also works to educate employees about selecting a primary care doctor and not going to the emergency room to get non-emergency services.

Of course, translation services carry added cost. "That is factored into the sales equation, and they know it coming in. They can't imagine that translating is going to be cheap," Jurich says. "But to [avoid] someone [having a stroke] and paying for complications down the line, it may be worth it."

For industries like construction, retail and services - notable for high turnover and large populations of workers who don't speak English as a first language - a multilingual benefits campaign can become a retention tool. "If there is a labor market that is proficient in Spanish, and you have jobs for them, then it's good to have folks that are bilingual who can have real conversations. [These efforts] can contribute to an organization's success," says Eric Peterson, manager of the Society of Human Resources and Management's diversity and inclusion programs. "It helps you gain a reputation as an employer of choice."

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