Flood-affected business owners in Vermont have faced a host of difficulties since this summer’s disaster. But with language barriers, recovery can be harder still, according to Melissa Bounty, executive director of the state-funded Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation (CVEDC).
“We asked FEMA, ‘Where do we go for translation?’ They said, ‘Oh, you have large communities that speak other languages?… Good, go to those community members and ask them to volunteer.’ And that was the only thing that they offered,” she told the state Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs on Oct. 19.
Bounty was describing challenges during the three months she served business owners at CVEDC’s pop-up flood-recovery center.
Staffed by employees and volunteers, the center provided some 1,600 hours of business counseling and multiple services, including grant proposal writing, strategy, and financial support, according to Bounty.
“Of the counseling hours we logged, a disproportionate number were dedicated to clients of color. This is because of the barriers faced by these community members — needs like translation, assistance dialoguing with landlords or contractors, and days which involved darker and more difficult challenges,” Bounty told the lawmakers.
Some business owners brought their own interpreters. But for a group of 15 speaking five different languages – Nepali, Thai, Vietnamese, Hindi, and Mandarin Bounty later told The Bridge – state services were needed. Ordinarily, the CVEDC would find a government-funded interpreter via referrals to area nonprofits, including the Association for Africans Living in Vermont, Bounty explained. But the organizations were unable to supply interpreters in four of the five languages, she said, having only a Mandarin interpreter available.
A time-consuming scramble ensued. One person came through Bounty’s friend group and another person she met at a Waterbury Asian restaurant. All were employed elsewhere and took time off work to help. Funds from the Small Business Development Center paid them for their time.
It can be tricky to line up interpreters and translators. Jenny Raith Taylor, lead coordinator of interpreter services at the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, said their interpreters are independent contractors with other jobs, and most of their work takes place around Burlington. Some may not be willing or able to come to central Vermont, particularly as they are not reimbursed for both mileage and travel, she explained. A week’s notice is often needed for booking, and people are not always available.
Moreover, Raith Taylor said, the irregular nature of the work is a challenge.
“If you think about the interpreter perspective, living in Vermont is so difficult — they need money,” she said. “If you have enough appointments for interpreters, [they would] maybe not go and do other full-time jobs.”
(Interpreters work with spoken language, while translation covers written material; the word “translator” is often colloquially used to refer to both types of work.)
According to the state’s Office of Racial Equity’s “2023 Language Access Report,” at least 34 languages besides English are thought to be spoken in Vermont, and some 70,000 people are affected by hearing loss.
Citing the 2021 American Community Survey, the report estimated roughly 7,705 Vermont residents speak English “less than well.” This is likely an undercount, the report noted.
The report found multiple shortcomings of language access in Vermont, including interpreters’ and translators’ work being undervalued and underpaid. It recommended increasing compensation to state-contracted language service providers so “employees” could earn a living wage.
Many state websites are only translated via Google Translate, which the report called “an insufficient resource for translation due to errors that can create safety concerns.”
Many state governmental bodies lack the resources to implement federally required “language access plans,” according to the report. Fixing that would require action by the Vermont General Assembly and state government.
While that could be expensive, inaction could cost more, the report concluded, noting that on two recent occasions the federal government took legal action against Vermont state entities “due to noncompliance with federal language access regulations.”
“It is imperative that the state broaden its language access protocols … to prevent further expenses related to noncompliance,” the report added.
Planning for Inclusion
Bounty said she has often heard that there aren’t a lot of spaces for community building among BIPOC people (Black, Indigenous, people of color) in Montpelier. She is advocating for a technical assistance program for flood-impacted BIPOC entrepreneurs.
In the meantime, she said, any municipality can take steps to be more prepared for disasters: compile a list of translators, have translation funds lined up, and create a safe drop-in space.
“When people plan for emergency response, they have to include a realistic set of expectations for supporting business owners of color, new Americans, and any marginalized group,” she said.
“When a chaotic event like a flood happens, there’s a breakdown of order and all the little weaknesses in a system get exposed,” she added. “That does mean that marginalized people are at an even greater risk of being unsafe or of losing something in the situation. That inequity was evident to us every day in the work that we were doing.”
Bounty’s testimony followed that of Lalitha Mailwaganam, a Montpelier resident who told the committee about a post-flood situation that arose while she served free food to residents and cleanup workers, including non-English speakers. Mailwaganam spoke at the invitation of committee chair Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D, Chittenden-Southeast District).
Both testified as part of a focus on workforce issues, according to Ram Hinsdale.
“In order to have the future workforce that Vermont needs, we’re going to have to face some uncomfortable truths about how well we accommodate new arrivals, how humanely we treat people who are working here, whether it’s temporary or they’re looking to move here,” Ram Hinsdale said during the hearing.
“This isn’t to shame or blame anybody. This is to talk about the ways in which we need to learn from our failures to be welcoming to a changing workforce,” she said. “But it’s also the right thing to do.”