Spanish-language benefits-insurance brokerages aim at workplace safety

Employers whose insurance companies offer Spanish-speaking services for Hispanic and Latino employees will not only have better-informed employees, they may see reduced costs, like for workers compensation, according to area insurers.

Statistics show that Hispanic and Latino workers are among the highest population to be injured on the job.

In California alone, the Hispanic and Latino population recorded 148 fatal occupational injuries in 2016, the second-highest among all race or ethnic origins, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic's most recent figures. The bureau also reports California as having the largest Hispanic population in the country, with 15.3 million as of 2016.

'I started the Latinos in the Workplace Conference over 13 years ago after learning that Latinos were among the highest fatality groups in the nation,' said Michael Lopez, vice president of Santa Rosa-based Vantreo Insurance Brokerage.

It's a stark reality for business owners, but the good news is that of all the types of insurance they are required to carry, workers compensation is the one they have the most control over, Lopez said.

He explained how it works: Every business has an experience modification rate, which is a number insurance companies use to assess both past cost of work-related injuries and future chances of risk. Every business starts at 1.00, which is average. The lower the rate, the lower employers pay for workers comp insurance premiums.

When a business has a baseline number that rises over 1.00, the financial impact can be costly, Lopez said.

'Typically, if you're over 1.25, you're on OSHA's radar,' which can result in a company paying 25 percent more for their insurance premiums, he said. On the other hand, companies that report no lost-time claims to their insurance carriers can have an experience modification rate as low as 0.50. So instead of paying 25 percent more, now you're paying 50 percent less because you can control your (claims).'

The most effective way to keeping workers comp claims down is through extensive on-the-job safety education, and that's critical for the Spanish-speaking population to understand, Lopez said.

'Speaking Spanish and having materials in Spanish is vital in getting the (safety) message across, because a lot of Latino workers want to do well for their employers,' he said. 'They don't want to rock the boat, so when they say 'yes' to everything, they really mean 'no.''

Business owners must recognize that this translates to a lack of understanding and can lead to problems, both for the employee and for the employer's ledger.

Lopez said he realized years ago that Spanish-speaking employees are much more engaged and enthusiastic when learning from bilingual trainers rather than translators alone.

'I saw something that blew me away,' Lopez said, while observing Spanish-speaking employees at a training conference. 'They were like sponges … they were eager to learn, having fun and were into it.'

Lopez said he recognized translation services are not enough, and that it's important to teach Anglo business owners how to educate their Latino workforce.

'I started educating employer groups and started doing trainings,' Lopez said. 'I also realized that middle-level managers are the key ambassadors of the organization. They see what's going on so I (wanted to) empower them to be effective leaders.'

Like the Spanish-language trainings Vantreo offers, Arrow Benefits Group in Petaluma also has identified that need and taken action. In January, Arrow launched a Spanish language division called Alianza, which means 'alliance' in English.

Whether it's learning and practicing on-the-job safety or navigating an array of employee benefits, translation services aren't the sole solution, said Rosario Avila, who leads Alianza.

'Education is the huge component,' said Avila, who campaigned for ABG to create a Spanish-speaking division after witnessing how well Latino employees responded to bilingual services when she worked for a previous employer. 'What we had noticed when we were doing open-enrollment meetings (in Spanish) is that the employees were engaged, asking questions, taking notes.'

After open enrollment was over, however, she observed that the Latino employees would go silent.

The Spanish-speaking community hesitates to utilize their health benefits because they don't know how to effectively use them, Avila said. When they do use them and have questions about a claim, they won't ask. Instead, they wait until the next year's open-enrollment period. Oftentimes at that point, a claim has gone to collections and the benefits consultant must work to resolve it, she said.

Opening the communication lines — year-round — is the touchstone of Alianza. Spanish-speaking employees and their families are encouraged to call, text or email questions about their benefits throughout the year, knowing they will receive a direct response from a member of the Alianza team—all who are fluent in Spanish and understand Latin culture.

Among ABG's approximately 1,400 clients, about 20 percent are anticipated to need Alianza's educational services, and as many as 60 percent among its food-growing and wine-producing clients in and around Napa Valley, according to the company. To better respond to that need, Alianza recently opened a second office in Napa.

Another advantage to Alianza's business model of providing year-round bilingual educational services to Spanish-speaking employees is that it can eliminate a potential translation problem, such as turning to a child for help.

'It's typical to rely more on a child because they know English and can translate, even though (the child) doesn't understand what they're saying,' Avila said. 'Parents need to understand the meaning, not just the word.'

Avila noted that, in general, the Latino community will typically go to a walk-in clinic when they don't feel well, which ends up being more expensive for the employee. As such, employers can end up at a loss when trying to help them.

'It is in the best interests of employers that their employees understand and take advantage of the group insurance benefits they've arranged to offer to their workforce,' said Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a San Francisco-based nonprofit 501(c)(3) advocacy agency for insurance holders. 'So without a doubt it's worth investing in benefits information … services for non-English speaking employees so they can take advantage of this win-win situation.'

Lopez said that in order for business owners to ensure their Spanish-speaking — and entire staff — has all the tools they need, it's important to follow what he calls the EEE: educational, engaging and entertaining.

'You have to have all of those elements to capture the attention of your workforce,' Lopez said. 'That's how you effectuate change in an organization.'

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