Photographer: Pete Lee (Instagram “ohpetelee”)

When San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order went into effect in March, CAA staff mobilized to ensure that families in our community received support, particularly those experiencing hardships from loss of income during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of CAA’s oldest programs is its workforce development program. In recent years, CAA has partnered with employers in the hospitality industry to place our clients in jobs with stable wages, job security, and benefits. But as COVID-19 spread, hotels received cancelations. Many workers saw their hours reduced or were furloughed. With the exception of custodial positions, most of these jobs eventually vanished.

“The folks who still had jobs suddenly became front line workers,” says Sally Chen, CAA’s economic justice program manager.

CAA staff quickly got up to speed on the details of unemployment insurance to help community members, many of whom are not proficient in English, apply for benefits. Even before the pandemic, there were language barriers to accessing California’s Employment Development Department (EDD). While there are phone lines at the EDD for Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, they are only available four hours a day. Once the pandemic began, these phone lines were backlogged and inaccessible. People could not get through on them despite trying for hours, Chen says.

On top of the language divide, there is a digital divide for some who do not have access to a computer at home. The fastest way to file a claim is to do so online, but the online application is only available in English. The form can also be confusing, depending on one’s employment situation. Do you still qualify if you’re partly self employed? How do you fill out the forms if you’ve had multiple jobs in the past year?

“The system itself is very difficult to navigate even for an English speaker,” Chen says.

CAA’s economic justice staff help community members apply, often staying on the phone with them for an hour or more. These challenges have informed our Sacramento-based advocacy. Along with allies, CAA has been pressing for improvements overall at EDD that reflect the needs of the limited-English proficient community.

Through a partnership with the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, CAA also serves as one of the city’s Specialized Access Points, helping low-income and limited-English proficient immigrants with workforce services and career counseling.  

CAA’s multilingual staff also help undocumented residents, who don’t quality for federal relief, apply for local, state, or mutual aid funds and have been distributing groceries gift cards to households experiencing food insecurity. They also continue to keep the community informed by providing information about COVID-19 in Chinese over social media, WeChat, radio, and print media.

Meanwhile, CAA looks towards the future, shaping what recovery from the pandemic should look like. We participate in the city’s economic recovery taskforce, advocating for working-class, immigrant residents. We also work with other organizations that serve immigrants, such as the Good Jobs For All Coalition and Communities United for Health and Justice, a coalition of five organizations. In the coming months, CAA will co-lead a Good Jobs for All roundtable to discuss how the city can ensure that the road to recovery includes the people who have been impacted the hardest. CAA will also hold a focus group with clients on community-based solutions to economic recovery.

“We want to make sure that economic recovery is inclusive of all of our community’s needs,” Chen says.