A PORTUGUESE VERSION of the state’s unemployment insurance portal was released Tuesday, nearly seven weeks after the Baker administration promised quick action on translations of the portal into several languages other than English and Spanish.
The Portuguese version was released with no formal announcement and only after lawmakers and advocates had been pressing for it for weeks. The release was very different from the release of the Spanish translation, which Gov. Charlie Baker himself announced in an interview with El Mundo Boston. At the time, the Baker administration promised translations in Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Cape Verdean Kriolu in the coming days.
The state’s Department of Unemployment Assistance has been swamped with unemployment claims since the shutdown of the economy due to COVID-19. As more and more people have been filing claims, a persistent problem has been the difficulty of non-English-speaking residents to navigate the state’s unemployment insurance website and particularly the portal through which claims are filed.
Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford said he sent a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker’s office on April 13 asking for the portal to be interpreted into Portuguese. “When we sent the letter, the next day someone from the Department of Unemployment Assistance called and said they would have it up within that week. Then nothing happened,” he said.
Cabral said the Portuguese-American caucus in the Legislature sent a second letter to Baker on May 20, explaining that their constituents were swamping them with requests for help in navigating the online unemployment insurance system. He said a Portuguese-language guide is not sufficient because it takes days or weeks to get a call back from the agency administering the program.
The new Portuguese version was added to the state’s website Tuesday afternoon. Cabral discovered it when he hit refresh on his computer during a call with CommonWealth.
“It would have been so much easier if this was earlier,” said Heloisa Galvão, cofounder and executive director of the advocacy organization Brazilian Women’s Group, which has been connecting women recently unemployed who speak Portuguese to groups such as Greater Boston Legal Services, which is helping with unemployment applications pro bono.
Dr. Geralde V. Gabeau, director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Roslindale, who said Haitian Creole should be next. Gabeau’s organization helps with education and social services for Haitians across Eastern Massachusetts, and has helped over 100 families file their unemployment claims.
Helping one person recently, she said, took four hours, just because that person didn’t have an email address, and had never applied for unemployment. “This paperwork is foreign to our communities,” she said. “Many do not have an email address. If they don’t, we create it for them.”
One major issue has been that many Haitians in the community work as contractors or through staffing agencies, and don’t have information for their original employer. “They just move from job to job. Even at the nursing homes, some of the health workers get paid through a third party or agency,” she said.
There are at least 120,000 Haitians in Massachusetts, Gabeau estimates.
“It’s like we are living a traumatic experience on so many levels. We know our community faces a lot of challenges with access to services, but COVID-19 really put it at our feet,” she said.
Boston Rep. Liz Miranda, whose family is from Cape Verde, said more than half of her district of 45,000 people is Cape Verdean. She said her office has helped with more than 175 claims for Cape Verdeans. A 2019 study from Boston Planning & Development agency estimates that around 65,000 Cape Verdeans live in Massachusetts, mostly in Gateway Cities like Boston, Brockton, Taunton, and New Bedford.
Paulo Amado De Barros, president of the Cape Verdean Association of Boston, runs a tiny nonprofit open two days a week that provides social services, education, food assistance, and help with the unemployment portal during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past month, the organization has helped 385 families apply for unemployment assistance, pro bono.
De Barros said that the state should consider subcontracting with his organization and others for translation and interpreter services. Having an unemployment portal available in the languages many essential and immigrant workers speak would make it easier on them, he said.