Filing for Unemployment Sucks, and Language Barriers Make it Worse

Local immigrant advocates also cite the digital divide as a major issue.

The soft hum of static is the first sign something is amiss. There’s no one on the other end of the Mandarin-language unemployment insurance phone line — just dead air in the place of a human operator.

Calling back a few moments later, there is a pre-recorded message — in English: “The EDD system is currently unavailable,” the man says. “Please try again later.”

For Californians with limited English proficiency, trying to file for unemployment insurance is an especially arduous process, riddled with confounding hurdles, tangled phone trees and convoluted online portals. For example, while the Employment Development Department has sample fax or mail-in applications available in multiple languages like Hmong, Russian, Tagalog, etc.., but the EDD will only accept Spanish or English translations of the forms. Those who wish to apply online have only two languages to choose from — English or Spanish. And phone lines that are meant to serve other languages are often dead ends.

“If your English isn’t good, and if you’re trying to apply on your own, it’s definitely going to be really difficult,” says Helen Lu, an ESL immigrant who used to work as an Amazon shopper at Whole Foods. She recently quit delivering groceries out of fear of bringing COVID-19 home to her elderly parents. Now, like 13 percent of Americans, Lu and her husband are both unemployed. 

“Without work, we don’t have an income,” Lu says to the SF Weekly, mostly in Mandarin. “But we have to continue living. We still have to pay rent and eat food.”

Lu is one of over 17 million people who have applied for unemployment insurance in the past month. Working with Chinese for Affirmative Action, a Chinatown-based nonprofit, she was able to file a claim on March 29. If she hadn’t found the local immigrant advocacy organization she believes she wouldn’t have succeeded.

“If I applied on my own, I wouldn’t be able to understand the application,” Lu says.

A combination of challenges — jammed phone lines, varying levels of computer literacy, and complicated legalities — are forcing members of San Francisco’s immigrant communities to seek help from groups like Chinese for Affirmative Action. 

“Each day, we probably get three to five new [clients],” Christian Escalante, a worker’s rights program coordinator at the Filipino Community Center in Excelsior, says. “And we also have to continually follow up with the clients we already have.”

Further complicating matters, these relief funds are only available to people with work authorization. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible to apply for unemployment insurance, leaving 224,000 San Franciscans without access to benefits — a troubling fact as the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to spread.

“The stakes are pretty high for people to keep their housing, to keep their income,” Sally Chen, an economic justice manager for Chinese for Affirmative Action, says. “To keep their families fed and healthy.”

Graphic by Grace Z. Li

Phone Lines to Nowhere

While the EDD does provide phone lines for Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese speakers — as well as for the and deaf and hard of hearing — accessing one is difficult. Before, when they were only open Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., they were easily overwhelmed. (UPDATE: Due to Governor Newsom’s executive order on Apr. 15, phone lines will be open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.)

“The lines are packed,” Miguel Velasco, a workforce development program manager for the Mission Economic Development Agency, says. “There is no answer right now.”

With the exception of an application for Spanish speakers, phone lines are the only non-English options the EDD offers. There are no Asian languages represented in UI Online — the digital portal for filing claims — despite the fact that Asians comprise the second largest immigrant population in California.

“It’s been impossible for them to call and apply for the benefits,” Thao Bui, a community liaison for the Southeast Asian Development Center, says of her Vietnamese-speaking clients. While video tutorials exist in Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, and Mandarin, Bui says these are not useful for her monolingual clients. Furthermore, they still only teach users how to navigate the online English and Spanish system, which can be confusing for those who are not computer savvy. Imagine navigating an unfamiliar labyrinth with a disembodied voice shouting instructions above the maze’s walls. 

Even if the phone lines were effective, many languages are still missing from the EDD’s repertoire. There is no line for Tagalog speakers, which has forced clients at the Filipino Community Center to get creative. Some are trying to make up for the gap using tools like Google Translate, which sometimes works, but often leads applicants astray.

“That’s not always accurate or culturally appropriate,” Escalante says. It also does little to help applicants work through a complex application. Applying for unemployment insurance requires detailed work histories from the past 18 months and work authorization statuses.

“Case to case basis, it gets really complicated,” Chen says. It depends if “people are paid in cash, if they’re self employed, if they’re independent contractors, mis-classified workers, if they have multiple employers.” 

Graphic by Grace Z. Li

Computer Literacy

The EDD markets its UI Online portal as the “the fastest and most convenient way” to file for unemployment insurance.  But even in San Francisco, where tech giants gather, one out of eight residents doesn’t have an Internet connection at home. 

Before shelter-in-place orders were issued and non-essential businesses closed, people might have been able to visit a public library or Starbucks for WiFi access, but not anymore.

Low-income residents are the least likely to have reliable internet access. They’re also the most likely to need the income supplements of unemployment insurance.

Bui says that many of her center’s clients don’t even have an email address — the first requirement for filing an online unemployment insurance application. 

Computer literacy may be one of the biggest barriers for clients at local immigrant advocacy organizations.

“They don’t have computers,” Bui says. “Even if they have a computer at their house, they don’t know how to use it.”

Velasco says that many of his clients carry flip phones or no phones at all, which rules out UI Online’s mobile platform as an option.

Moreover, UI Online isn’t without its own problems. 

“It’s buggy. It crashes. It rejects qq.com emails,” Chen says. (QQ is a popular Chinese messaging platform.) “It’ll log you out of your account for an hour if you forget your password. It’s overall difficult to navigate.”

Graphic by Grace Z. Li

Undocumented, Ineligible

There are approximately 224,000 undocumented individuals living in San Francisco, but they’re left out of the picture when it comes to unemployment insurance. Without worker’s authorization, they’re ineligible to apply.

That’s despite the fact that undocumented individuals are estimated to pay about $11.74 billion a year in state and federal taxes nationwide, according to a 2017 report from the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy.

“If they’re paying taxes, then they [should] get a little bit of money,” Velasco says.

There are some funds made available for undocumented San Franciscans. UndocuFund, a coalition of six grassroots organizations in San Francisco, accepts tax-deductible donations that they plan to redistribute to undocumented applicants.

California will also be implementing a $125 million relief fund that will give one-time cash benefits to undocumented immigrants. Additionally, Supervisor Shamann Walton proposed the COVID-19 Emergency Family Relief Fund for families who don’t qualify for any federal or state relief. If passed, this would grant $500 per month to 5,000 families, including undocumented immigrants.

But undocumented families might be losing $800 to $1,500 a week, Diana Flores, a director at Dolores Street Community Services, told Mission Local. That’s money individuals need to buy food from local grocers or pay their landlords rent.

“The issue is the resources need to be continuous,” Escalante says. “They can’t be one-off things. The current pandemic isn’t going away.”

Escalante says that one of the Filipino Community Center’s undocumented clients is living in a house with a lot of people, and is starting to feel uncomfortable. He can’t file for unemployment. And, because he can’t pay his phone bills anymore, he has few ways of reaching out and asking for help. 

He’s not the only one.

“They are living without protection,” Alejandra Cuestas-Jaimes, the workers’ rights attorney at La Raza Centro Legal. “The immigrants who have been working very hard are without benefits, and they’re a part of the American economy.” 

Velasco says that a majority of his undocumented clients have had to rely on food pantries for support during this time.

“They’re paying taxes and everything,” Velasco says. “It’s human nature right? Everyone has needs, whether they have documents or not.” 

Miguel Velasco is a workforce development program manager for the Mission Economic Development Agency. Photo courtesy of Miguel Velasco

The Best We Can

Velasco knows that the EDD is overwhelmed. But he also knows that it’s a critical time for those seeking unemployment insurance.

“A lot of people are greatly struggling with paying rent,” Velasco says. “Or even getting food on the table.”

For some, it’s not just the people around them they have to worry about.

“Usually, they send money to families from their original countries, and they’re worried about that too,” Cuestas-Jaimes says. “Many people depend on them.”

Over 135 California organizations cosigned a list of demands for Governor Newsom, some of which include revisions to unemployment insurance. At least two of the requests were addressed: As a temporary COVID-19 measure, every applicant will receive an additional $600 a week, and the EDD will not require weekly work searches.

But another demand still stands in limbo: “Accept applications in any language in which they are completed.”

Bui wonders if EDD can expand their non-English phone lines, a sentiment Cuestas-Jaimes echoes.

“I know that they’re trying, but they need to hire new personnel or hire people who’ve retired to solve the problems that they’re having right now,” Cuestas-Jaimes says. “Not only that, it’ll have to be people who can speak Spanish or any other language that is needed.”

Asked multiple times to comment on their efforts to bolster ESL services, the EDD replied with this statement: “EDD Media Services has received your inquiry and information directly responsive is not immediately available to provide you with. We will work on gathering the information requested and will reach back out to you as soon as possible.”

But the times are urgent, and local immigrant advocacy groups can only do so much to fill in the gaps.

“There is so much on the line to access these funds. The workers really need the support,” Escalante says. “We’re doing the best we can, but it also should be on EDD to make these resources more available, and to make the process easier and easier to understand.” 

Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

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