Henry Zhang, a middle-aged immigrant from Taishan, China walks down a set of stone steps in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood.
CAA client Henry Zhang takes a stroll through San Francisco Chinatown, where he and his wife have lived for decades. Zhang is one of thousands of Chinese immigrants who has struggled to access unemployment benefits on account of his limited English proficiency. (Image Credit: Beth LaBerge for KQED)

Last October during a California legislative hearing, lawmakers questioned the Employment Development Department (EDD) on their backlog of people who had been waiting months for their unemployment benefits. Yet one group of people was left out of the discussions: those who primarily speak a language other than English. 

While portions of the EDD website are in Spanish, and there are some phone operators who speak Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese, it is nearly impossible to get through to them. Instead, applicants are offered a “callback” at a much later time. CAA has observed four-to-six-week windows of delay for callbacks.  

“Our community is trying desperately to access this vital service, [but] we weren’t even part of the [discussion about the] backlog, because community members couldn’t even reach the EDD to begin the process of getting unemployment insurance,” says Santosh Seeram-Santana, CAA’s legislative director, of the October hearing. “We weren’t even on the onramp; we were still in the parking lot. Nobody was paying attention to this issue in a meaningful way.”  

CAA has long advocated for language diversity, having played a central role in the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision Lau v Nichols, which expanded access to bilingual education in public schools. In San Francisco and California, CAA continues to monitor and improve the City and State’s language access laws to keep pace with changing demographics, technologies, and community needs — and to hold institutions accountable for progress. As part of this work, CAA is the lead agency for the San Francisco Language Access Network

California is home to the nation’s largest Limited English Proficient (LEP) population with 7 million residents who speak little to no English. While Spanish is the most spoken non-English language, there are approximately 2.4 million LEP Californians who speak other languages. Of the top 11 languages spoken in the state, Asian languages make up 7 of the 11 languages, which include Vietnamese, Tagalog, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Punjabi, and Arabic.

To address the EDD’s insufficient language support, Sally Chen, CAA’s economic justice program manager, developed a policy paper and brought together both local and statewide organizations to build a coalition on EDD and language access. This resulted in CAA coordinating and leading meetings with the EDD and the California Labor and Workforce Agency in December and January. The coalition includes Legal Aid at Work, Center for Workers’ Rights, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project, African Advocacy Network, Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, and Hmong Innovating Politics.

The coalition also asked for a legislative hearing in January, at which Seeram-Santana testified, letting lawmakers know that the lack of language access can lead to community members being taken advantage of by fraudulent actors. Scammers post as experts, she explained, and file claims on behalf of people for exorbitant fees. They also end up with victims’ personal information. 

“When these unscrupulous actors submit claims with errors, the worker is the one who suffers the harsh consequences,” Seeram-Santana said. “And without language access at the EDD, there is no way for people to explain, correct, or report on what happened.”

While community organizations like CAA have stepped up to help, this is not a long-term solution. 

“These organizations doing direct service really shouldn’t be,” says Chen, referring to the fact that the state has not given resources to organizations helping non-English-speaking applicants. “It really should be the EDD working with clients to help them, but in the wake of all this, we’re trying to take on as much as we can to help people get what they need.”

When out-of-work community members can’t access their benefits, they face dire consequences, such as evictions, cutting back on meals, and emotional distress. CAA client Henry Zhang told KQED that he and his wife, who both lost their jobs during the pandemic, have been eating less in an attempt to stretch their food stamps as they wait for EDD payments. 

Since the pandemic began, CAA has helped several hundred people apply for benefits, find out why payments have been delayed, held Chinese-language info sessions, and created FAQ guides in Chinese. The demand for CAA’s help is so great that there is a waitlist. Most of CAA’s clients are monolingual immigrants who work in hospitality, restaurants, or gig work.  

“There’s a few who can speak a bit of English, but when it comes to legalese that comes from the state or government officials, the way the language is written is too confusing to understand what it means,” says Amos Lim, CAA’s economic justice community advocate.

In February, Assemblymember David Chiu introduced Assembly Bill 401, which would require the EDD to identify the language needs of claimants, increase multilingual phone lines, and communicate with claimants in their preferred language. CAA worked in coalition with Chiu’s legislative director on the bill.

The bill has received strong bipartisan support from both Republican and Democrats alike in the Assembly Insurance Committee and was placed on the consent calendar (i.e. non controversial bills that have both parties support). It now heads to the fiscal committee.

The bill will help ensure that LEP community members have more equitable access to unemployment insurance and other programs and services from the EDD, wrote Seeram-Santana in a letter supporting AB 401. “Unemployment insurance is a lifeline for LEP community members during this unprecedented economic crisis and global pandemic.”