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California doesn't have enough bilingual worksite inspectors

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In California, the agency overseeing workers' health and safety doesn't have enough certified bilingual inspectors. That's a problem for one of the most linguistically diverse states in the nation, where nearly 1 in 5 workers speaks limited English. From member station KQED, Farida Jhabvala Romero reports.

FARIDA JHABVALA ROMERO, BYLINE: More than 100 Chinese and Latino essential workers pack a recent town hall in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We are going to have today's town hall in three languages. We have...

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

ROMERO: The event was designed to reach out to people working in construction, domestic health care, transportation and the like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS XIAO: (Speaking Cantonese).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Hi, I'm Thomas. I'm a member leader from the...

ROMERO: Thomas Xiao addressed the crowd in his native Cantonese. He first came to the city nearly 30 years ago.

XIAO: (Speaking Cantonese).

ROMERO: He says he used to work in restaurants, but he sustained a repetitive motion injury in his shoulder from tossing a heavy fryer for years as a cook.

XIAO: (Speaking Cantonese).

ROMERO: The injury was so severe it required surgery, but he never filed a complaint with state regulators. In fact, he'd never heard of the state agency that investigates workplace injuries like his. That would be Cal/OSHA.

MICHAEL HOROWITZ: I think that it's pretty obvious that they don't have the same protections as an English-speaking worker.

ROMERO: Michael Horowitz is a retired Cal/OSHA inspector in Oakland. He says low-wage immigrant workers with limited English are especially reluctant to speak up because they fear losing their jobs. And should an inspector who doesn't speak their language visit their job site...

HOROWITZ: It's a lot more difficult for their problems and their hazards to be brought clearly to the attention when a state health and safety inspector actually is at their workplace.

ROMERO: Personnel records show that, out of the more than 200 Cal/OSHA inspectors statewide, only one is certified as fluent in Cantonese and only one in Vietnamese. That's for nearly half a million Chinese and Vietnamese-speaking workers total who don't speak English very well. There's also a big shortage of certified Spanish-speaking inspectors.

DAVID CHIU: You cannot possibly be addressing the needs of those immigrant workers.

ROMERO: David Chiu is city attorney in San Francisco.

CHIU: The lack of language ability on the part of staff means we don't know what's happening, we can't enforce the law and workers' lives and their health and safety are at risk.

ROMERO: Cal/OSHA has some online materials in Chinese and Vietnamese. But to get to them, you have to navigate through a website in English. Officials with the agency declined to be interviewed for this story. But in an email, a spokesperson wrote, more staffers do speak a second language. It's just that they haven't passed a state certification exam. The agency is also working hard to attract bilingual candidates, the spokesperson wrote. But with nearly 30% of enforcement positions vacant at Cal/OSHA right now, the top priority is just hiring qualified people.

ASH KALRA: Ultimately, it comes down to putting your money where your values are.

ROMERO: State lawmaker Ash Kalra heads the California Assembly's labor committee.

KALRA: And that means we have to not just pay more, but do other kinds of incentives to be able to hire.

ROMERO: Kalra says private industry can pay more and hire faster.

Meanwhile, Thomas Xiao, who was injured as a cook, says that, with so many workers who have limited English, Cal/OSHA has a lot to learn.

XIAO: (Speaking Cantonese).

ROMERO: Xiao says, if more inspectors were bilingual, they could really understand working conditions and do a better job keeping people safe. For NPR News, I'm Farida Jhabvala Romero in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Farida Romero