Meet the Leaders Supporting BDT’s Bilingual Staff

For Cristhian Acosta, it was trying to quickly translate the term “weatherization assistance program” that underscored for him the need to provide more support to Benefits Data Trust’s bilingual employees.  

Cristhian, now a supervisor in BDT’s Benefits Center, joined BDT three years ago as a benefits outreach specialist serving both Spanish- and English-speaking people who call us for help with benefits.

“We needed to make sure the Spanish translations we use are proper and standard to be understood by all Spanish speakers, because the colloquial Spanish a person may speak can differ depending on their background or the region their family is from,” he said.

BDT works to improve access to public benefits and build more streamlined ways for people to access these programs and for government staff to administer them. One way we do this is by reaching out to eligible people who aren’t yet enrolled and helping them apply to programs that can pay for food, medicine, housing, and more.  

“A lot of our job is education – explaining to people the programs they’re able to apply for,” said Jose Ruiz, a Benefits Center manager. “With how complicated some of these programs can be, it’s one thing for me to explain in English and another for me to explain in Spanish.”  

Jose, Cristhian and Alvania Boone, Associate Director of Benefits Center Services, together lead BDT’s Bilingual Employee Experience (BEE) Project, enhancing the library of Spanish language translations and resources available to benefits specialists and establishing a bilingual proficiency team who helps with new translations needed. This team has translated into Spanish more than 150 entries in BDT’s knowledge management software that houses answers to frequently asked questions, descriptions of benefit programs, and key terms.

Now, BDT’s Spanish translations of complicated English-language phrases – like “weatherization assistance program,” or programa de asistencia de climatización – are standardized and easier for our bilingual benefits outreach specialists to reference while they speak with people.  

Providing clear, fluent communication about benefit programs in languages other than English is a crucial part of helping more eligible people access programs – and one that many government benefits agencies lack resources to do.  

Read our Q&A to learn how we are helping to ensure bilingual staff have what they need to serve Spanish speakers with excellence.

Headshots of Cristhian Acosta, Benefits Center Supervisor, Avania Boone, Associate Director of Benefits Center Services, and Jose Ruiz, Benefits Center Manager

How did the BEE Project come about?

Alvania: BDT grew as an organization in 2020 to meet the needs of families and individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of that, we were joined by a lot more bilingual employees and employees whose primary language is Spanish. Today, nearly 20 percent of our benefits outreach specialists provide screening and application assistance in Spanish, and we currently serve more than 400 people each month whose household language is Spanish. 

We started to hear feedback from our Spanish-speaking team members and realized that if we could improve the experience they have communicating about public benefit programs, our Spanish-speaking clients would have a better experience when they call to learn about and apply to programs.

Jose: I’ve been at BDT for eight years and was always involved in our small team of Spanish-speakers. We tried to create translations and tools when we could. Once BDT started growing, we wanted to make sure we had a dedicated space for Spanish-speaking employees to come and feel supported.  

What makes this project important to BDT’s mission? 

Cristhian: It helps us close the benefits access gap. Because we have Spanish-speaking outreach specialists who feel comfortable talking about these programs in Spanish, we’re better prepared to help Spanish-speakers apply to public benefit programs they’re eligible for. It can help lower the additional barriers to benefits access for Hispanic communities, such as fear regarding immigration status or the sense that these programs are unfamiliar.  

A lot of people we speak with, including older adults and people with disabilities, tell us that they had no idea they could apply for this assistance. It’s so important we get this information to them in a way that is clear and understandable – and that is really done by native speakers, because literal translations are not always right.  

Jose: It’s very important for us to have the ability to clearly explain this whole process to them, because of fears that can be present in Hispanic communities. Everyone should receive a good experience with us, regardless of what language they speak. 

Alvania: While most of our clients who speak a language other than English are Spanish speakers, we also work with a third-party translation service that provides support in 170 languages, so we don’t have to turn away anyone who calls us.  

What comes next for the BEE Project?

Alvania: We’re launching an addition to our quality control protocol, adding a few questions specific to language proficiency on Spanish-language calls. Next we’re turning to our hiring, training and onboarding processes for Spanish-speaking benefits outreach specialists. We want to make sure it’s a good experience through the whole lifecycle as a BDT employee. 

The project also includes goals to conduct a thorough market pay analysis to ensure appropriate compensation for our bilingual employees and to build more translation tools and capabilities into the technology we use when we help people learn about and apply to benefits.    

We were very intentional in calling this the “bilingual” employee experience project. It’s not intended to stop at the Spanish language. We plan to replicate this approach as speakers of other languages join BDT in the future.  

Cristhian: This project is a reflection of how much BDT has grown as an organization and how the communities we serve have grown. Spanish is spoken widely – it’s a necessity. Improving people’s access to benefits means providing information and support in their language and establishing everything as you have already in English.

Interested in learning more about our bilingual services? Reach out to us here.