The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in expanded unemployment benefits, which has made many more community members eligible for unemployment than were before. This benefit has been a much needed lifeline as people were laid off and/or lost hours of work. As Washington State’s Employment Security Department’s (ESD is the department that administers Unemployment benefits) data has shown, the types of jobs most affected were those in the restaurant, hospitality/tourism, and service industry sectors, which employ many individuals with limited English proficiency and include people without computers who would normally rely on a library or WorkSource office to access computers.
Access is key to achieving equity in our region and right now the Unemployment System is not accessible nor equitable in its design. We have heard from community members who are paying people to complete their applications and submit their weekly claims for them, because the system is not accessible to them, whether they have limited English proficiency and/or lack a computer or digital literacy skills. We have also heard heartbreaking stories from community members who have little to no safety net to fall back on when they are not working and who have waited months for their legitimate claims to process.
Since March, Neighborhood House staff have been engaged in helping community members access information about Unemployment benefits and navigate the system. Staff translated information on expanded benefits and created videos in 11 languages. NH Employment Specialists assisted clients with how to check if they were eligible for Unemployment benefits and how to apply. Throughout the past six months, NH has been in conversation with ESD, advocating for more options to access benefits and for expanded language access.
We recently helped pilot a referral pathway with ESD to get assistance for community members from COFA nations (certain Pacific Island nations which have a special agreement with the United States allowing citizens to live and work freely in the US without a visa). These communities faced additional obstacles in applying for Unemployment because of the way the online system required documentation details that did not apply to their immigration status (Read more in an article on KUOW featuring NH staff members CeCe Heine and Triple Js Kaminanga).
We are now asking ESD to expand this program to serve other groups with limited English proficiency. We envision a system whereby service providers such as NH could submit claims to ESD and schedule phone appointments for their clients with interpreters. We are also advocating for improvements to the online eServices system; for adaptability for usage on smart phones and for simplification of language and/or audio translations of application and weekly claim questions in multiple languages.
We know that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on people of color in our region and immigrants and refugees. We will continue the partnership with ESD and the work to address the accessibility concerns to center equity in our work and ensure access for all Washingtonians, particularly those who have been thus far excluded.
By Brianna Kiarie, Associate Director of Education & Community Services