More than two dozen nonprofits and immigrant advocates say Hawaii’s unemployment office is violating state and federal law by not providing much-needed interpreter services to help laid-off workers who can’t speak English access unemployment benefits.

The letter was signed by Corey Park, board president of The Legal Clinic, a nonprofit serving low-income immigrants in Hawaii. Park signed the letter on behalf of 32 organizations and immigrant advocates including immigration attorneys, the American Civil Liberties Union, Catholic Charities Hawaii, Unite Here Local 5 and We Are Oceania.

The business shutdowns intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus have led to widespread unemployment in Hawaii. The state’s unemployment agency has been overwhelmed with a deluge of applications that crashed the agency’s online application process, forced the agency to create a temporary workaround and continues to frustrate thousands of people who lost their jobs.

The unemployment office is closed to in-person visits and people who don’t speak English have struggled to get an interpreter by phone. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Immigrants and others who don’t speak English or don’t have access to a computer have had a particularly difficult time accessing unemployment benefits.

“We know that the department is under a lot of pressure and it has an antiquated system and there are a lot of people who are suffering now with the pandemic,” Park told Civil Beat. “But the immigrant community and in particular the limited English proficiency community is having it in a worse way because they can’t even get meaningful access to the (unemployment) system.”

He said the state is “definitely not in compliance with the law” and the organizations and individuals who signed the June letter want to help the state fix that.

The letter said that the unemployment office has persistently failed people who speak limited English, “despite clear guidance and an abundance of existing language access resources” at the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

The unemployment office is violating not only the state language access law but also Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Social Security Act, the groups said.

The letter, dated June 12, was met by silence for more than two weeks until Civil Beat inquired about the state’s response last week. Anne Perreira Eustaquio, acting director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations that oversees the unemployment office, sent a reply dated July 1 agreeing to meet with The Legal Clinic to discuss the issue.

Eustaquio wrote that the agency has several modifications it can make to help improve access and wants to hear advocates’ ideas as well.

“As limited resources is a real concern, DLIR welcomes exploring a cooperative approach with The Legal Clinic and other community groups to help those in need of language access,” Eustaquio wrote.

Legal Concerns

Fixing language access issues isn’t just a matter of helping immigrants and others who need unemployment benefits receive them. Failure to do so could also be costly to the state.

Hawaii established a language access law in 2006 that requires public agencies and state-funded organizations to create language access plans that include providing competent and timely interpretation services and translating important documents.

The state Department of Transportation settled a lawsuit in 2015 after it failed to translate driver’s license tests into Chuukese, Marshallese and Ilocano. Numerous complaints about lack of language interpretation at the Hawaii State Judiciary prompted a federal review and overhaul of policies that year as well.

In 2016, Honolulu was forced to translate its notices of homeless sweeps into multiple languages after a successful class-action lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Hawaii Public Housing Authority also was the subject of a Civil Rights Commission complaint related to lack of language access that resulted in a settlement.

Some Hawaii hotels are closed or operating at less capacity during the pandemic, forcing many hotel employees out of work. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

DLIR, which oversees the unemployment division, also oversees the Civil Rights Commission. But the letter from The Legal Clinic noted that the department is still violating civil rights laws. The state set up an email address for people to request interpreter services but the advocacy groups noted many emails have gone unanswered.

“Notably, no vital documents have been translated into Hawaii’s most frequently encountered languages in violation of both federal and state law,” the groups said in the letter.

Lack of clarity about what legal statuses are eligible for unemployment is also preventing Pacific Islanders who are working legally in Hawaii under the Compacts of Free Association from obtaining support, the letter said. In one case, a human resources director of a major Hawaii hotel chain said they helped many employees apply for unemployment but with drastically different results by race.

“Filipino employees were successfully paid timely unemployment benefits, COFA residents were not,” the letter said.

The letter called for the creation of a new working group, additional resources and better training, among other improvements.

Bill Kunstman, spokesman for the unemployment office, said the agency is open to creating the working group. It is also willing to update website instructions that currently inform non-English speakers that they can visit the state agency in person, even though the office has been closed for months.

“That certainly needs to be fixed,” he said.

Kuntsman said the agency years ago made an effort to collaborate with community groups to provide language access to comply with federal funding requirements.

“Meeting with those community groups was something that I guess fell by the wayside, that hasn’t been happening over the last few years,” he said. Now the state is “looking to pursue that as a way to help the situation.”

Tatjana Johnson, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, told Civil Beat fixing the problem is a moral issue.

“Public health is certainly a reason to stop the economy but if you’re going to do that you have to provide a means for people to provide food, shelter and basic necessities and they just aren’t,” she said of the state.

She noted that it’s already July and her clients are experiencing the same problems they did in March. The new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program is even worse, she said, because there’s no number to call and some of her clients who called the unemployment office needing interpretation were told to contact Legal Aid.

“At this point it’s just, to me, gross incompetence on behalf of the state,” she said.

Read both letters below:

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