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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