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Report: Revisit Disability Payments In P.R. For Lack Of English

This July 16, 2014, photo, shows an aerial view of cruise ships docked at the Old San Juan pier in Puerto Rico. A nearly eight-year recession has sent businesses and people leaving the island and going to the mainland U.S. Ricardo Arduengo / AP
/ Source: NBC News

Over the past few years, more than 200 residents of Puerto Rico were granted federal disability benefits because they don’t speak English fluently, according to an audit report by the Social Security Administration's inspector general.

The agency’s inspector general questioned whether job seekers in Puerto Rico - a U.S. commonwealth where both Spanish and English are the official languages but the main spoken language is Spanish - are really hampered from finding employment because they don’t speak English.

“The guidelines assume individuals who are unable to communicate in English are limited in their ability to find a job in the regional or national economy where English is the predominant language, even though residents of Puerto Rico may be able to find local work with their Spanish-speaking skills,” the report said.

Under current Social Security Administration rules, job seekers—regardless of their level of education or work history—face tougher hurdles to finding employment in the U.S. when they don’t speak English fluently.

Spanish is the most broadly spoken non-English language used in the U.S., according to a Pew Research Center report. It is also a language with the fastest-growing number of speakers.

According to the Social Security Administration’s inspector general’s report, a U.S. Court of Appeals also upheld an earlier U.S. District Court’s ruling that Spanish fluency, rather than English, is most important for the Puerto Rican workforce.

The inspector general’s report recommends revisiting whether the rules should be tweaked in such cases and advised that the agency figure out the number of people who received disability benefits due to an inability to speak English fluently. The Social Security Administration agreed and is working on a potential rule change.

—Halimah Abdullah