Extreme Language Barriers Prevent Workers from Getting Unemployment Insurance in the Pandemic 


Contact: Zavé Martohardjono | martohardjono@nclej.org 

Today the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ) released “Designed to Exclude: New York’s Failure to Provide Compensation and Language Access to Unemployed Workers”. This report documents the New York State Department of Labor’s (NYSDOL) systemic failure to make unemployment insurance (UI) accessible to workers who have limited English proficiency during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

According to the report, the DOL has failed to translate many documents vital to obtaining UI benefits into New York’s six, much less, twelve most frequently spoken languages in violation of federal and state law. For the first year of the pandemic, NYSDOL did not translate its website and the unemployment application into languages other than English. The report documents how the state’s failures to meet the needs of LEP workers has caused prolonged delays, inability to access benefits, and wrongful denials to New Yorkers with limited English proficiency – denying relief to those who need it most. The report includes new data that shows that people of color and Hispanics have been denied UI at higher rates than whites and non-Hispanics.

“We saw how COVID-19 laid bare the structural racism and economic inequality across the nation and in New York State,” said Anjana Malhotra, NCLEJ Senior Attorney. “Immigrants and people of color are among the groups that bear the brunt of the mortality crisis and disproportionately work as essential workers most at risk. Unemployment skyrocketed during the pandemic, but workers with limited English proficiency haven’t been able to access this lifeline of support because the Department of Labor refuses to provide multilingual access. These language access gaps have continued-denying countless eligible LEP workers UI benefits essential to staving off poverty and hunger. This is shameful for one the nation’s most linguistically diverse states.” 

NCLEJ’s report is based on interviews with workers and leaders of more than a dozen immigrant-serving organizations in New York State and a review of documents and data. The report documents how NYSDOL failed to translate critical documents and did not accept calls from applicants seeking unemployment. Those with limited English that could get through—after days to months of effort—were met with incoherent and inconsistent interpretation services, if any at all. The NYSDOL’s phone system effectively collapsed, forcing unemployment claimants to apply or address delays or denials online. According to the report, this negatively impacted all claimants, and left low-wage immigrant workers without computers, internet access, or digital literacy stranded at the height of pandemic economic crisis. 

Workers NCLEJ interviewed shared devastating accounts of their difficulties, challenges, and often complete inability to access UI benefits they were entitled to at a time they needed it most:

“It would be maybe one hour [or] two hours waiting to connect, and then they would either cut me off, or when I would connect, I would say, ‘Please in Spanish,’ they would either cut me off, or they would put me on hold again,” says a worker in an interview for the report. “…[T]hat made me feel hopeless.” 

“[W]hen the pandemic hit… if you didn’t speak English or Spanish you had to use the phone. And of course, a million people were calling into those phones. They didn’t have staff to handle this volume of calls,” said interviewee Legal Aid Society Staff Attorney Richard Blum. “While it was extremely difficult for everybody, it was especially difficult for people who didn’t speak English or Spanish.” 

The failures of NYSDOL resulted in community-based organizations to step in to provide thousands of hours of interpretation and translation and other assistance to limited English proficiency claimants – that NYSDOL is legally required to do. Many community organizations and non-profits created translated instruction materials and videos in the absence of Department of Labor guidance, served as interpreters, and became the only access point to New York’s 2.5 million workers with limited English proficiency.  

According to the report, many of those LEP workers who did not find community and legal organization assistance, and even some who did, were denied benefits, turned to food banks, resorted to homeless shelters, and went hungry. Countless workers requiring translation never received due benefits, with the NYSDOL responding that “mistakes were made.” 

“It felt like the government is really failing people, failing workers, on multiple levels,” said Flushing Workers Center Organizer Sarah Ahn. “Fine, [the state] can’t do anything about the pandemic, but it can ensure that the health and well-being of people is [its] primary concern. We all felt like that was clearly not the case.” 

With key information still only available in English, NCLEJ’s report recommends state and federal policymakers immediately translate all vital documents and instructions to obtain unemployment into New York’s top ten languages. Among other recommendations, NCLEJ urges NYSDOL to revamp its call system to provide prompt and accurate interpretation, fully translated documents, provide benefits to those LEP workers unjustly denied, and to create an advisory of community and legal organizations to prevent ongoing systemic barriers to LEP UI applicants.  

This report was a collaboration between NCLEJ, New York Legal Assistance Group, Adhikaar, Flushing Workers Center, The Legal Aid Society, Legal Services NYC, Make the Road New York, MinKwon Center for Community Action, Queen City Workers Center, Volunteers of Legal Service, with assistance from the National Employment Law Project.

National Law Center for Economic Justice will host a virtual press conference on Wednesday, August 24 at 10:00 AM Eastern. Speakers will include: Anjana Malhotra Senior Attorney at NCLEJ; Leah Lotto, Associate Director of Training at NCLEJ; Ciara Farrell, Volunteer Attorney at New York Legal Assistance Group; Megha Lama, Organizer at Adhikaar for Human Rights and Social Justice; and Alexa Tapia, Unemployment Insurance Campaign Coordinator at National Employment Law Project. To join, please register at this zoom link for the event.