In summary

California unemployment applications can only be filed in English or Spanish, leaving a challenge for many residents who speak other languages. Many are new filers who do not understand the application process, lack internet and computer access. Traditional support groups such as nonprofits are also unable to provide in-person help.

Candelaria Pablo Perez picked up the phone recently and heard what is now a familiar story. The man on the other line, a non-English speaker, had lost work due to the coronavirus shutdown and had questions about how to file for unemployment.

But in Perez’ case, the situation was a little more unusual: The man spoke Mam, a Mayan language native to Guatemala that is becoming increasingly common in the Bay Area.

Pablo Perez, a native Mam speaker who was hired as a community engagement assistant by the Oakland-based Unity Council, walked him through the application over the phone, answering his questions about eligibility and helping translate his application into English before it was submitted. The process took nearly two hours.

Pablo Perez’s client is among the tens of thousands of Californians applying for unemployment as coronavirus-related closures put increasing numbers of people out of work. But like many foreign language speakers, he faced the additional barrier of having to submit an application in Spanish or English, the only two languages unemployment insurance claims can be submitted in. He speaks neither of those languages fluently. Unity Council said it is fielding so many requests that it is now training existing staff in how to help field the growing number of unemployment questions from clients more comfortable in their native languages.

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In diverse California, where roughly 44% of the population speaks a language other than English at home and 27 % are foreign born, the state’s Employment Development Department offers more than 70 language options to translate the content of its website, from Latvian to Yiddish, Swahili and Hmong, among others. Butto file for unemployment, the applications themselves must be filed out — either online, faxed or mailed — in English or Spanish. The department does provide sample applications for Armenian, Chinese-Cantonese, Chinese-Mandarin, Hmong, Korean, Laotian, Punjabi, Russian, Tagalog, and Vietnamese, speakers, but will not accept claims submitted in those languages.

Organizations working with immigrant communities and non-English speakers  — from Mam to Vietnamese and Chinese — say clients are having trouble submitting claims on their own at a time when they can no longer get help in person because most non-profit employees are working remotely.

The challenges are primarily twofold: Many of these new filers do not understand the bureaucratic and technical language of the application even when it is translated into their native languages, and low-wage and elderly workers without internet access or basic computer skills have few options for filing now that agencies, nonprofits, libraries, and cafes that used to offer internet access or support are closed.

In California, the number of new unemployment claims last week totaled nearly 879,000, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday. That’s almost five times more than the jobless claims filed statewide in the week of March 21. Gov. Gavin Newsom estimated the state has received roughly 1.6 million claims for unemployment insurance since mid-March, an increase that could thrust California into an unemployment rate of 12% this spring.

EDD does not track claims by language, but for those not fluent in English or Spanish, filing a claim is daunting.

“Giving something that’s translated from English to Vietnamese doesn’t help them,” says Shirley Gee, executive director of the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay, which works primarily with local Southeast Asian communities. “They don’t know what to do: ‘Do I go online? How do I fill this out? What does it mean when they say this?’ You literally have to have someone who speaks the language who can ask the question in different forms so they can provide the answer. You have to talk them through it orally.”

George Chan, executive director of the San Francisco-based Chinese Newcomers Service Center, estimates that about one-fifth of the people his organization works with don’t have internet access — particularly the elderly and economically insecure, two populations they serve. The EDD recommends filing unemployment claims online for the fastest processing, a challenge for low-income and low-tech Californians who are at home without internet. Although 74% of California households in 2017 had broadband services at home, just 55% of low-income households had internet access, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. African American and Latino households also had less access than the statewide average.

Recently, Chan says he walked by the center’s office in Chinatown and saw an elderly couple waiting outside, hoping someone could answer their questions about filing their taxes and the government’s coronavirus stimulus checks.

“I told them, ‘shelter-in-place, you should stay home,’” Gee says. “They’re old and they speak Chinese only. But they said they need help and they need internet access and don’t have anyone to help. I’m really concerned about that group of people. There’s nothing we can do for them. We aren’t a government agency, just a nonprofit. We don’t have the protective equipment to stay open. If we had the safety equipment then we would be open and could talk to them face-to-face…I don’t know how many days they had been doing that before I saw them.”

This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Erica Hellerstein

Erica Hellerstein is an award-winning journalist and a reporter for The Mercury News and The California Divide project covering poverty and inequality in the Bay Area. She has covered human rights issues...