City offers Spanish speakers bonus

Raleigh workers who are fluent enough to pass a test will get an annual bonus of $500

Staff WriterDecember 27, 2005 

It pays to speak Spanish in Raleigh -- $41.67 a month, to be exact.

Any city worker who can pass an hour-long Spanish test will receive a $500 annual bonus, a new and popular perk for Raleigh bureaucrats.

City Hall is already doing much of its business en Espanol.

Ask Mona Michaud. She sits at the information desk just inside the front door and fields questions in Spanish at least six times a day.

"It could be as many as nine or 12," she said. "I translate for utility billing; once in a while I can translate for the police department. Anywhere and everywhere."

The idea for bonuses popped up about a year ago with hopes that more people on staff would bone up on Spanish skills, said Rick Rocchetti, Raleigh's training director.

The city wanted its workers to know more than a few verb tenses and how to ask directions to the bus station.

They had to take a written test, but they also had to navigate through long conversations with vocabulary words catered to certain city jobs.

"There were words like 'steering committee,' " said Tyra Banks, a recruiting specialist in the Personnel Department who nonetheless passed the test. "I didn't know how to say 'steering committee' in Spanish."

In the first round, 19 of 21 test-takers passed. Those who failed had to wait for a second try. The city gives the test only once a year, and there is already a large group queuing up for the second round in late January.

"There's definitely an upward trend," Rocchetti said. "I'm getting a lot of buzz."

While the city quizzes its employees, Raleigh is also keeping a log of how often its workers interact in Spanish.

Between June and December, Monica Quechol-Bradley spoke to 266 Spanish-speakers at her job in the Parks and Recreation Department.

At the bill-payment windows on the first floor, she guessed the number must be higher.

Michaud would agree. Sometimes, translation is all she does in a day.

She learned her Spanish on the streets, she said.

"I'm from Idaho -- Idaho Falls," she said. "Don't ask me how I got here. Stupidity and a bus ticket. I was always around the migrants, migrants and their children. When I came here, I just fit right in."

As she explains this, she greets a Spanish-speaking delivery man pushing a hand truck.

"Como estas?" she asks as he gets in the elevator. "Siempre a la seis?"

But because Michaud is a full-time, but temporary worker, she cannot take the test and get the bonus.

Hint hint.

She'd like the chance, she says: "I'm kind of important."

Staff Writer Josh Shaffer can be reached at 829-4818 or jshaffer@newsobserver.com.

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