Oakland votes to require bilingual staff

OAKLAND, Calif., Reuters

The Oakland City Council voted on Tuesday night to require city workers in many departments to speak Chinese or Spanish under a first-in-the-nation ordinance which sets a model which other U.S. cities with large immigrant populations could follow.

Officials said the new law will at first require about 80 of the city’s 4,500 workers, or slightly less than 2 percent, to be bilingual. The measure is expected to affect some 25 of the city’s 65 departments.

Census figures show that 35 percent of Oakland residents are Asian or Latino — making it crucial to have bilingual workers such as police officers or firefighters in areas with large numbers of limited English-speaking residents, supporters of the measure said.

The City Council voted 7 to 0 for the measure that calls for important city departments — such as health or emergency services — that deal with the public to hire a “sufficient” number of bilingual employees. The measure is aimed at ensuring that residents who speak limited English have equal access to basic city services and are able to do things such as filling out hospital forms or calling 911.

No current employees will lose their jobs for not speaking other languages, because the new positions would be filled through attrition. Each city department will also decide how many bilingual workers it needs.

Oakland’s new requirement will go into effect May 8 when the city council approves the bill on a largely procedural second reading and it is supported by Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who is also former governor of the nation’s most populous and ethnically diverse state. The measure has already stirred the fierce English-only debate with critics blasting the ordinance, saying it discourages immigrants from learning English and adjusting to their new country.

“It is your choice to live in this country, so you should learn the language,” Carol Kolenda told the council during public comments.

Under the ordinance Chinese and Spanish would be the first two required languages, but others could follow if any population has at least 10,000 speakers of the same language whose English is limited. The cost of providing the services in Oakland is expected to run about US$350,000 for two years, largely for translation services.

San Francisco is also scheduled to take up a similar measure in May and immigrant-advocacy groups say Oakland’s decision will likely set a precedent for other cities across the United States to do the same.