Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Language Access During COVID-19 at DOES and DHS

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented need for access to unemployment benefits and public benefits such as SNAP (known as “food stamps”) and TANF. With complicated application language and technological problems with the application systems, it can be incredibly difficult for anyone to navigate the process of applying, and even more difficult for applicants who need to apply in any language other than English.

Legal Aid is a member of the DC Language Access Coalition (DCLAC), an alliance of community-based and civil rights organizations helping the District address language access issues through implementation of the District’s Language Access Act of 2004 (DCLAA). The Act requires District agencies, to assess the need for and offer oral language services, as well as provide written translation of vital documents, in any non-English language spoken by a limited-English-proficient or non-English-proficient population that constitutes 3% or 500 individuals (whichever is less) of the population served or encountered or likely to be served or encountered by the agency. These non-English languages covered by the DCLAA are Amharic, Chinese (Mandarin), French, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

In a post last week, Legal Aid reviewed how the Superior Court is promoting language access during COVID-19. We now call upon the Department of Human Services (DHS), which administers public benefits such as SNAP and TANF, and the Department of Employment Services (DOES), which administers unemployment benefits, to make the following changes to expand access to these critical services:

The Department of Human Services (DHS)

Limited-English-proficient and non-English-proficient individuals face significant barriers in applying for public benefits during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, individuals often applied for benefits by visiting a DHS service center and completing an application. With these service centers now closed, the application process has moved online. The online, all-electronic application, however, is only available in English. Spanish- and Amharic-speaking applicants can apply by printing the application, completing it, and dropping it off, mailing, or faxing it to DHS. (The application has not been translated into any other languages to print and complete at home.) Unfortunately, many applicants are unable to complete the process this way (for example, because they lack a printer and/or fax machine), thereby effectively foreclosing – or severely limiting – their ability to receive these critical benefits.

To help bridge the gap, Legal Aid has helped Spanish-speaking applicants complete the online combined application for individuals for whom TANF would be their only income. We helped one such applicant to apply for TANF benefits in mid-April. Both she and her partner lost their jobs due to COVID-19, and are now trying to figure out how to pay rent and support their young son. Their only current income is SNAP, which runs out before the end of the month. The receipt of TANF will make it possible for them to stay afloat. Their application is still processing.

There are likely many more DC residents who are eligible for benefits but not likely to apply due to serious language access barriers. DHS should make the online application available in languages required by the DCLAA.

The Department of Employment Services (DOES)

With the unprecedented number of people applying for unemployment compensation, it has been difficult for many people, with or without language barriers, to complete their applications over the phone or online. However, the problems applying are often compounded for those claimants who are not able to apply in English. These problems include:

  • The online application for standard unemployment benefits is only available in English and Spanish. Claimants who speak languages other than Spanish or English must call the DOES hotline and wait on hold for hours (as many of our clients have) for a DOES employee to call an interpreter.
  • The application for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA — the new temporary program providing unemployment benefits for workers not eligible for standard unemployment, like independent contractors, gig workers, people who are self-employed, and people who cannot work because they are caring for children who are not in school due to COVID-19 closures — is only available in English, and only available online. (Read more about PUA in Legal Aid’s recent blog post.)
  • The DOES hotline is available in English and Spanish, but the line can have significantly longer wait times than the English lines.
  • DOES has a pre-recorded phone message in multiple languages (English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Mandarin) but not Amharic or French.
  • All of the COVID-19 Unemployment Insurance program updates and fact sheets that have been posted on the DOES website are only available in English.

Legal Aid has helped dozens of workers with limited English proficiency apply for unemployment benefits. One person who called Legal Aid for help, typical of many others, received an error every time he tried to apply for benefits online, but could not get through the phone line to speak to someone in Spanish, waiting on hold several hours every day. Only after Legal Aid reached out on his behalf was he able to complete his application, several weeks after he first tried to apply.

DHS and DOES should address each of the issues listed above, and, moving forward, ensure that their programs, services, and publications are in compliance with the letter and spirit of the DCLAA.

* * *

It is not just the responsibility of the agencies to address these language access issues. The Mayor’s Office and the D.C. Council have an obligation to serve all District residents, not just those who have the language and technical skills to access English-only computer-based applications for services. We call on the full District government to take all actions in their power to ensure that DOES and DHS are providing full language access as required by the DCLAA. These actions could include:

  • The Council, during its upcoming budget hearings, ensuring that DOES and DHS are budgeting appropriately for compliance with the DCLAA.
  • The Council holding additional performance oversight hearings for DOES and DHS.
  • The Council passing legislation imposing a fine structure for violations of the Language Access Act.
  • The Office of the Mayor establishing a mechanism where all essential government updates and vital documents, which would include COVID-19 related updates from DOES and DHS, are professionally translated as soon as possible.

We look forward to continuing to work with these agencies, the DC Council, and the Mayor’s Office to ensure DC residents are healthy, safe, and able to endure this unprecedented challenge.

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