Groups File Federal Civil Rights Complaint Against New York State Department of Labor for Discriminating in Unemployment Insurance Procedures
Failure to provide multilingual access to unemployment insurance documents have forced New Yorkers into severe financial hardship.
May 2, 2023
Patrick Fowler, NCLEJ Communications Strategist | email@example.com
Anjana Malhotra, NCLEJ Senior Attorney | firstname.lastname@example.org
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Yatziri Tovar, MRNY Media Specialist | firstname.lastname@example.org
New York – Today, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ), the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), and Make the Road New York (MRNY) filed a federal civil rights complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) against the New York State Department of Labor (NYSDOL) for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, as well as other federal and state laws. The complaint alleges that the NYSDOL discriminates against its clients and workers who have limited English proficiency (LEP) by failing to provide meaningful multilingual access to unemployment insurance (UI).
The unemployment system has long served as a critical benefit to help workers who lost their jobs at no fault of their own from falling into poverty. However, the NYSDOL has failed, and continues to fail, to translate many documents vital to obtaining UI benefits into New York’s twelve most frequently spoken languages or provide adequate interpretation services, in violation of federal and state law, causing prolonged delays, inability to access benefits, and wrongful denials to LEP New Yorkers. The NYSDOL’s systemic failure to meet the needs of LEP New Yorkers was documented in “Designed to Exclude: New York’s Failure to Provide Compensation and Language Access to Unemployed Workers,” a report released by the NCLEJ last October.
Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin by any federally-funded agency or program. The term “national origin” includes discrimination on the basis of language. NYSDOL’s violations of Title VI continue to cause profound and unequal economic harm to LEP New Yorkers.
The complaint requests that the USDOL investigate NYSDOL’s systemic, repeated, and widespread violations of Title VI and require that NYSDOL remediate their systemic multilingual access deficiencies. The complaint is filed on behalf of three named complainants and all LEP workers in New York State who were eligible for unemployment. As detailed in the complaint and NCLEJ’s previous report, claimants face these barriers because the Department does not translate or mistranslates vital documents, including time-sensitive determinations and instructions about obtaining benefits, instructions about filing and certifying, fraud notifications, overpayment notices and waivers, and other documents essential to securing UI benefits. In addition, according to workers and advocates, New York State’s private identity verification system, ID.me, requires English language and technological literacy, and has delayed and wrongfully denied our clients and other LEP claimants from accessing UI benefits. As New York State’s comptroller recently noted, ID.me disadvantages LEP and other marginalized workers.
“The New York State Department of Labor has failed people like me with limited English proficiency” said Kevine Empadi, an LEP French-speaking New Yorker who is one of the complainants. After Empadi was cut off from UI benefits by NYSDOL, he faced issues with ID.me identification verification and was forced to live in a homeless shelter because he could not afford his rent. “NYSDOL and ID.me’s delays and refusal to provide language translation and interpretation services have had disastrous consequences for my wellbeing, from my housing to my immigration status. They must address our concerns and be held accountable by the federal government so that this does not keep happening.”
Complainant Hameeda Bano, whose primary languages are Urdu and Pashto, faced severe language access barriers in the unemployment process that resulted in the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board making an erroneous finding that she engaged in willful fraud and imposing almost $20,000 in fines. This is devastating for Ms. Bano, a single mother and day care worker. According to Ms. Bano: “This never should have happened – the Department has refused their legal obligation to provide translations and interpretation for people with limited English proficiency. It is unfair that they are treating me like a criminal after they failed to do their duties.”
“New York State has disregarded, disempowered, and discriminated against workers with limited English proficiency (LEP). These language access gaps have deeply impacted the complainants, and delayed and denied countless eligible LEP workers UI benefits essential to staving off poverty and hunger, and penalized them with onerous overpayment recoupment. in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. This is shameful for one the nation’s most linguistically diverse states.” said Anjana Malhotra, NCLEJ Senior Attorney. “The NYSDOL has a legal obligation to provide multilingual access to life-saving unemployment insurance benefits. We are asking the federal government to hold the NYSDOL accountable, investigate their severe language access barriers to the complainants and other LEP claimants, and ensure equal access to UI benefits for all New Yorkers.”
According to Ciara Farrell, Volunteer Attorney at New York Legal Assistance Group,“The three workers featured in this complaint are only the tip of the iceberg of those who have suffered and continue to suffer because of New York State’s systematic failure to translate vital documents into English. Every day, we represent clients who, because of NYSDOL’s failure to translate and interpret as required by law, are wrongfully delayed or denied unemployment benefits, and — like Ms. Bano -– are wrongfully accused of fraud, putting them into debt upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. On top of the clients we see, there are countless LEP New Yorkers who don’t find legal assistance and are locked out of the system.”
“We have seen too many of our members delayed and denied critical unemployment benefits as a result of NYSDOL’s failure to translate vital documents and provide adequate translators to unemployment insurance claimants. Even when our members have been able to apply for UI in Spanish, they receive notices back in English,” according to Elizabeth Joynes Jordan, Co-Legal Director of Make the Road New York. “These language access barriers have had serious consequences for workers and their families, who have not been able to pay for essentials such as rent, electricity and food to feed their families because unemployment insurance has been put out of reach for them. New York State must fulfill its legal obligations to insure access to unemployment insurance and a safety net for all New Yorkers.”
To address these problems, we urge the USDOL to open an investigation into the NYSDOL and bring them into compliance with Title VI and remedy these serious, discriminatory barriers for LEP claimants. The coalition also recommends that New York State enact pending overpayment legislation to provide relief to those who are facing massive overpayment recoupment due to no fault of their own – that the federal government has urged states to grant. In addition, to ensure ongoing sustainable reform, we urge the USDOL to mandate that NYS work directly with community groups on language access issues, that have become the lifeline for LEP New Yorkers to access unemployment, especially since the pandemic.
The National Center for Law and Economic Justice is a legal nonprofit organization that advances racial and economic justice for low-income families, individuals, and communities across the country through ground-breaking impact litigation, policy advocacy, and support for grassroots organizing. Founded in 1965, NCLEJ fights to protect access to critical benefits like food stamps, Medicaid, and childcare, protect low-wage workers’ rights and safety, advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, and fights unlawful debt collection.
New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) is a leading civil legal services organization combating economic, racial, and social injustice by advocating for people experiencing poverty or in crisis. Our services include comprehensive, free civil legal services, financial empowerment, impact litigation, policy advocacy, and community partnerships.
Make the Road New York (MRNY) builds the power of immigrant and working-class communities to achieve dignity and justice. MRNY is the largest grassroots immigrant organization in New York, with a membership of over 25,000 low-income New Yorkers. We provide essential health, legal, education and survival services, while also continuing to organize our communities to innovate policies that will improve their lives.