Raleigh reviews services for Spanish-speaking customers

ccampbell@newsobserver.comNovember 25, 2013 

— Callers to Raleigh’s utilities department often can’t reach a Spanish-speaking employee, and that’s prompting a review of the city’s bilingual services.

Eva Burnette recently complained to the Raleigh City Council that the utility call center has few Spanish speakers, prompting residents who don’t speak English to call repeatedly or supply their own translator.

“I am not understanding why it is so hard … we are being treated like second-class citizens,” Burnette wrote, noting that many private companies immediately offer callers a choice between Spanish and English.

Utility billing manager Susan Decker says her department has “a couple” of Spanish speakers, but they’re not always available to take calls.

“We try to see if they can speak some English or if they have a friend or family member that may be able to assist them with translation,” Decker wrote in an email. “If we cannot assist immediately, we ask for a name and number to call them back, and our goal is call the customer back within 24 hours.”

That wasn’t always the case. In years past, Raleigh had a program that offered additional pay to bilingual employees willing to be on call for any translation needed. “This program was terminated as part of budget reductions over the last several years,” Lou Buonpane of the city manager’s office explained in an email to City Councilman Russ Stephenson.

The concerns from Burnette prompted Stephenson to request information about how other North Carolina cities serve residents who don’t speak English. Both Charlotte and Greensboro specifically hire several Spanish-speaking employees for their call centers. Greensboro also uses AT&T’s Language Line service when needed.

“The remainder of the cities (Durham, Winston-Salem, Fayetteville, Richmond) all approach the issue much the same as we do by having access to Spanish-speaking employees on an ad hoc basis,” Buonpane told Stephenson.

Raleigh officials say they’re tracking the number of calls from residents in need of translation to determine whether to make changes.

“We are reviewing outsourcing opportunities to help in this situation but also in other language assistance needs,” public utilities director John Carman said.

For now though, setting up a utility account can be a hassle for those who don’t speak English. Burnette says non-English speakers sometimes visit city hall only to be asked to return another time or find their own translator.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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