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Ask the Experts: Does ERISA Require SPDs in Other Languages?

Question: Our company offers group health coverage and other employee benefit plans. Our workforce includes a number of employees who do not speak English. Are we required to distribute summary plan descriptions (SPDs) in different languages?

Answer: No, ERISA does not require translating and distributing the entire SPD in any non-English languages, but does require assisting employees in their own language when certain criteria are met.

FIRST, if the plan:

  • Has fewer than 100 participants at the beginning of the plan year and 25 percent or more of the participants are literate only in the same non-English language;
  • Has 100 to 4,999 participants at the beginning of the plan year and 10 percent or more of the participants are literate only in the same non-English language; OR
  • Has 5,000 or more participants at the beginning of the plan year and 500 or more of the participants are literate only in the same non-English language.

THEN, the plan must assist the non-English speakers in a manner that provides them with a reasonable opportunity to become informed as to their rights and obligations under the plan. The assistance can be oral; such as a bilingual HR staffer or bilingual carrier customer service representative talking with the affected employees to explain the plan in the non-English language.

Further, at a minimum, the SPD must include a statement explaining how, when, and where to get assistance in the non-English language. The statement must be prominently displayed in the non-English language(s), such on the SPD’s introduction or title page. The following sample statement, when translated into the appropriate non-English language(s), is sufficient:

“This booklet contains a summary in English of your plan rights and benefits under the [insert name of employer] [insert name of plan]. If you have difficulty understanding any part of this booklet, contact [insert name of plan administrator], the plan administrator, at [insert office address of plan administrator]. Office hours are from [insert office hours] Monday through Friday. You may also call the plan administrator’s office at [insert plan administrator’s office telephone number] for assistance.”

To recap, if any one of the three bullets above applies, then the ERISA SPD must include a how-to-get-assistance statement, prominently displayed, in the non-English language(s). Employers always have the option of going beyond this minimum requirement and some employers do distribute plan materials, including complete SPDs, in multiple languages.

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Kathleen Berger
Kathy Berger is ThinkHR’s principal benefits consultant. She is a Certified Employee Benefits Specialist (CEBS) with over 25 years of experience working with brokers and employers. Kathy uses her extensive knowledge of ERISA, HIPAA, the ACA, and other benefits laws and regulations to assist our clients with practical information in clear language.