The Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations has promised to overhaul its unemployment system after a federal agency investigated the agency for failing to provide required access to non-English speakers and immigrants.

That’s according to a press release issued Tuesday by the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii. The nonprofit law firm filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center on behalf of five Hawaii workers.

The agency reached an agreement with the state unemployment office that requires the agency to allow people to file unemployment claims by phone and paper — instead of just online.

Unemployment Insurance office located at the Princess Ruth Keelikolani Building . DLIR
The unemployment insurance office located at the Princess Ruth Keelikolani Building has been closed for more than a year and a half to walk-in visitors, but will open in December. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

That’s something advocates for immigrant communities have been concerned about for more than a year, since pandemic shutdowns spiked unemployment and thousands struggled to get access to the funds. The office has been closed to walk-ins for more than a year and a half, forcing people to wait on tied up phone lines to get help if they aren’t computer literate.

The unemployment office recently announced they’re planning to open to in-person appointments in December.

“DLIR is required to review and update or develop new systems to provide language interpretation and ensure that participants know that interpretation is available,” the Legal Aid press release said.

The unemployment office will also have to translate important documents into Japanese, Tagalog and Cantonese or simplified Cantonese, and keep track of how Hawaii demographics change.

“They will also need to ensure that forms and applications (both online and paper) do not prohibit or dissuade applicants from applying or receiving benefits based on their citizenship status,” the Legal Aid press release said. “The process should not be misleading or require more documentation than necessary for non-US citizens.”

Civil Beat reported last year that the unemployment office’s online application, created in the wake of pandemic shutdowns, excluded a field to allow some Pacific migrants to input their immigration information. The agency updated the application after Civil Beat reported the problem.

The Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations receives federal funding and is not allowed to discriminate against people who don’t speak English fluently.

The state agency entered into what’s called a voluntary conciliation agreement to address the problems.

“We appreciate Hawaii’s commitment to non-discrimination and its willingness to address these allegations affirmatively and cooperatively,” Civil Rights Center Director Naomi Barry-Perez said in a statement to media.

“The agreement with the Civil Rights Center (CRC) affirms our commitment to improving our capabilities in providing services to those with limited English proficiency and eligible non-U.S. citizens seeking to file claims for unemployment insurance benefits,” Anne Perriera-Eustaquio, director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said in a statement.

“Unemployment insurance benefits are an essential component of our nation’s safety net as underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the assistance of the CRC we will systematically enhance our services to these populations,” she continued.

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