A NORTHAMPTON GROUP is helping Spanish speakers fill out state unemployment insurance claim forms with an online tool that walks them through the process step by step.
The state’s online portal for filing unemployment insurance claims is English-only, creating an almost insurmountable barrier for anyone who doesn’t speak the language. Some unions and volunteers have worked with Spanish-speaking people to help them fill out the forms, but it often takes hours to complete the paperwork.
Now the Pioneer Valley Workers Center in Northampton has developed a free online tool that lets Spanish-speaking people fill out the forms on their own. The center is currently working on a Portuguese version.
Employees at the workers center created a slideshow featuring screenshots of the portal with instructions written in bubbles in Spanish. For example, where the instructions say fill in hour home address, a bubble in Spanish tells the user what to do.
Recognizing the growing demand, Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton, a former Italian and French translator, reached out to the worker center to see if they could help make the unemployment insurance claim forms accessible to non-English speakers.
“Northampton has a lot of Spanish-speaker restaurant workers who are recently unemployed. We want them to have an easy way for them to walk through the unemployment application process,” Sabadosa said.
Sabadosa said the state intended to offer unemployment insurance claims forms in Spanish and other languages, but the COVID-19 outbreak, followed by a huge influx of claims, made that impossible. Sabadosa called the new Spanish guide for the forms “a cheat sheet.”
Jocelyn Langer, who works at the Pioneer Valley Worker Center, said the online tool is crude but it works. “This isn’t an ideal solution, but we hope it will help as many people as possible,” she said. A second version is being translated into Portuguese.
Greater Boston Legal Services has been training volunteers to become temporary unemployment insurance claims helpers so that they can work through a backlog of recently laid-off immigrants who speak Cantonese, Spanish, and other languages.
The slideshow caught the eye of UMass Amherst professor Luis Marentes, who teaches a 20-student undergraduate class focusing on the translation of medical materials. His students are planning on partnering with Pioneer Valley Workers Center to translate other materials that could be helpful to the community but are currently English-only.
“Students want to provide information that could be useful and important to the community,” he said. “They also want to see if there are special hours for seniors in local stores and translate that.”
The Massachusetts unemployment insurance site currently can be translated into languages through a Google translate add-on that automatically pops up allowing you to choose your language, and some additional translated pages about unemployment insurance. But the translation services are unavailable for the actual application.
When you click on the Portuguese section, for instance, the screenshot below shows what pops up.
Officials with the state’s Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said they have held a series of virtual town halls to answer applicant questions in Spanish and Chinese.
Advocacy group Lawyers for Civil Rights sent a letter Wednesday to Labor Secretary Rosalin Acosta and Department of Unemployment Assistance Director Richard Jeffers to make the portal more language accessible.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of non-English speakers across the Commonwealth are currently facing economic catastrophe,” wrote litigation director Oren Sellstrom in the letter. “It is imperative that the Department act now to increase language access to ensure that all residents can access unemployment benefits on an equal basis.” The organization, which has fielded hundreds of calls about the matter, has not heard back.
“I hope the state can allocate resources to make this happen,” said Rose Bookbinder, co-director at Pioneer Valley Workers Center, who is offering her organization as a resource. Until then, she said, her organization will continue running a 24-hour hotline, which has had over 300 people call in, along with zoom trainings, which have helped over 500 people fill out unemployment forms.
Mei Guan, a 43-year-old South End resident who was just laid off from her job as a kitchen assistant in a Downtown Crossing mall eatery, said through a Chinese translator that she didn’t know how to apply through the portal, so she called the Chinese Progressive Association, which has trained 100 volunteers to work as temporary claims processors.
A staff member at the association walked her through the process on the phone, and filed the application on March 18. With her rent of $1,800 a month coming up, she’s hoping that the unemployment claim goes through and she qualifies for a benefit of $600 a month. “There’s no update,” she said, “and the application was very complicated.”