It was Jan. 26. And after weeks of false starts, San Francisco resident Ruyu Wu finally had a representative from the state Employment Development Department’s ID.me identity verification platform on the phone.
It was a video call, actually. The representative wanted to verify Wu's identity face to face. This is a common approach EDD uses to confirm applicants’ information, and a test Wu had to pass to secure her benefits. Her husband, Henry Zhang, was with her. Wu doesn’t have a smartphone, so she has to rely primarily on his iPhone when she needs to do these video calls.
In English, the ID.me representative asked Wu — whose first language is Cantonese and speaks barely any English — to confirm her address. When she said it, the representative said he couldn’t understand her, so Zhang tried to assist. Though he primarily speaks Cantonese and some Mandarin, he knows enough English to get by if there's no other option.
“The guy asked to see my ID and when I showed him and pointed it at the camera, the guy said, ‘No, you know what? I'll find somebody to come and help translate and I'll call back.’ So I asked for someone who could speak Cantonese, preferably, because my wife speaks Cantonese,” Zhang said through a translator. The representative agreed, and said he would call back.
Now, more than three weeks later, Zhang and Wu are still waiting for that call. Zhang is still trying to secure his own benefits after his payments expired towards the end of 2020. EDD has told him he will not be eligible to certify again until March. Meanwhile, Wu's account is locked for fraud concerns and was likely part of the mass freeze of 1.4 million accounts EDD did in early January.
Zhang and Wu both emigrated from Taishan in China and have been living in San Francisco for many years now. Before the pandemic, Zhang did laundry and janitorial work and Wu was working as a dishwasher at a restaurant.
While they wait for their payments, the couple is scrimping, Zhang said. They aren’t eating as much as they normally would, trying to make their food stamps last.
Though EDD does have resources designed to support applicants who speak languages other than English or Spanish, its systems are often so overloaded that people who need this support can’t consistently access it. And the ID.me platform — which EDD implemented to help automate its verification process and unclog the bottlenecks — has created added barriers for those, like Wu, who don’t have easy access to certain technology.
Breaking Down Access Gaps
Late last year, researchers at the California Policy Lab gathered data on how many Californians were receiving unemployment benefits and, for the first time, broke down the numbers on a neighborhood level.
UCLA economics professor Till von Wachter led this study and said the contrasts were stark. The study showed that not being a citizen, speaking a language other than English or having gaps in broadband access could interfere with a person’s ability to secure unemployment benefits
“Whereas in those communities where there is very good broadband access or where median household income is large, there has been a higher rate of UI (unemployment insurance) receipt," he said.
In short: Californians who need these benefits the most are more likely to be the ones who aren’t getting them, and EDD’s infrastructure is amplifying these vulnerabilities.
Since she’s been unemployed, Wu spends most days and some nights taking care of her elderly mother-in-law at the mother’s home. There, Wu doesn’t have good cell reception and often worries she'll miss a call from EDD. Or that if a representative does reach her, she won't be able to complete the tasks asked of her on her flip phone. Or maybe EDD will reach out on Zhang's phone when they aren't together.
But tech challenges aren't just limited to not having a smartphone.
Advocates say, even for the parts of claims where applicants only need to use a computer, there are still big access gaps. Daniela Urban, executive director of the Center for Workers' Rights in Sacramento, says she has many clients who use public computers to log into their EDD accounts.
"So they get to that point where they're being asked to wait for an hour, hour and a half or far more, depending on when they've tried to verify their identity," she said, "And they are simply not able to continue to remain on the internet that long or in a public space that is open with internet access, particularly given the COVID restrictions, you know, where the spaces are already impacted because of limitations on social distancing."
Before the pandemic, Zhang and Wu would have likely just walked the few blocks from their home in San Francisco’s Chinatown to the headquarters of Chinese for Affirmative Action. The advocacy group has become a lifeline for them as they’ve navigated an unemployment claims infrastructure that was built to serve mainly English and Spanish speakers.
CAA Community Advocate Amos Lim said normally one of the organization's main focuses is job placement, but its workforce development staff have had to pivot entirely to unemployment support to help fill accessibility gaps perpetuated by EDD. There’s currently a wait list of more than 75 clients who haven’t been able to access language help via EDD, Lim said.
“[The support] is severely lacking right now, considering that, you know, a lot of the essential workers are low-wage entry-level workers, and they're mostly from the immigrant community,” Lim said.
Dr. Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA, has researched how Asian American communities — and residents of Chinatowns in particular — are faring with their unemployment benefits. And he echoes Lim's concerns.
"During the pandemic, we saw a much more rapid and steeper escalation of the unemployment rate for Asian Americans," he said, "and we saw that particularly for the less educated, those low-wage workers, and they tend to be immigrants."
Ong says one of the biggest barriers to benefits is obvious — language gaps.
“So if you go, for example, to California's unemployment insurance website, it's in English and there's also a button for Spanish, but there's no button for other languages," he said. "They may provide other material so deeply embedded in the website, I couldn't find it. If I couldn't find it, other people can’t.”
In a written statement, EDD confirmed that its site is geared only to English and Spanish speakers — though it has dedicated phone lines for English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese speakers and 162 call center reps that also provide customer services in Arabic, Armenian, Korean, Laotian, Punjabi and Tagalog.
But CAA’s Amos Lim said despite what EDD says, people are still having trouble getting through the language access line.
"They’ve tried days and days. If they do get through, they’ll be on hold, nobody picks up, and then the calls get disconnected," he said.
Despite the fact that ID.me is available in 10 languages at state DMVs, where it is also used, the platform is currently only translated in English and Spanish for EDD.
Blake Hall, CEO of ID.me, has said he wants the application to be as widely accessible as possible, but neither Hall nor EDD officials have confirmed a clear plan to expand those language resources for unemployed Californians, though it is clearly possible.
On an EDD media call on Feb. 18, EDD Director Rita Saenz said they're working with other departments to learn about how it can better expand language access. She also indicated that other changes are on the horizon but didn't provide much more detail.
And new legislation is seeking to relieve at least some of the burdens people like Henry Zhang and Ruyu Wu are facing in the future.
Assemblymember David Chiu, D-San Francisco, introduced Assembly Bill 401 earlier this month. The bill would require EDD to identify the language needs of claimants, increase multilingual phone lines and mandate EDD communicate with claimants in their preferred language in a timely way.
These adjustment may incur extra expenses for the state, Chiu said, but "this is a small price to pay to ensure that we're not effectively shutting out 7 million people from receiving unemployment benefits and particularly given immigrants and people of color have been particularly hard hit during this pandemic."
If the bill passes, it sets July 2022 as the deadline for implementing these measures.
But it's still unclear how people with tech challenges like Zhang and Wu will be able to get any relief going forward — unless call volumes decrease significantly and it's easier to reach representatives.
In the meantime, Dr. Paul Ong says EDD reaching out to better understand the needs of the communities that are currently being left behind is key.
“A final plea is to have the Employment Development Department work more closely with the community groups and with other researchers," Ong said. "We really need to understand in much more detail the magnitude and the patterns of these inequalities and what's driving it. We're not going to solve it without understanding that.”
These organizations provide multilingual assistance in applying for unemployment benefits. Below is their contact information, and the languages in which they offer support: