US Federal Agencies and Departments Revamp Language Access Plans

Department of Labor Language Access

One year after US Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memorandum urging federal agencies to review and upgrade their language access practices and policies, major agencies and departments have announced updates to their Language Access Plans.

“Exciting news!” the Department of Labor (DOL) tweeted as it introduced its new language access plan, plus a new office in the department’s Civil Rights Center.

Among the new office’s duties, CRC will provide the department’s 26 sub-agencies resources and guidance, as well as assistance in procuring translation and interpreting services. 

CRC also analyzed DOL’s current language needs and found that “DOL agencies encounter 80 unique languages and interact with 11 languages on average.”

Garland’s memorandum, and the response from federal agencies, is meant to provide meaningful access to services for people in the US with limited English proficiency (LEP). This right is enshrined in Executive Order 13166, “Improving Access to Services for Persons with LEP”.

In a November 15, 2023 DOL news release, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Administration and Management Carolyn Angus-Hornbuckle said, “This new office and updated language access plan demonstrate the department’s commitment to equity, access and meaningful participation by workers with limited English proficiency in our programs and services.”

So far, a total of 18 federal agencies have released updates to their language access plans, including the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Some of the 28 agencies expected to release updated language access plans in 2024 are the Department of Education, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, the Small Business Administration, and the Social Security Administration.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) made its own updates public slightly ahead of the curve, in August 2023. 

Speaking in October 2023, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the National Center for State Courts celebrated language access victories at the state and national level, adding that NCSC has also started a law enforcement language access initiative, with the goal of improving access for witnesses, victims, and suspects. 

Of course, she said, ongoing challenges remain: In some jurisdictions, people with LEP must pay for language services; courts do not always identify language needs in time to arrange for and provide language assistance services; and video remote interpreting, though used widely during the Covid-19 pandemic, is not appropriate for all settings.