EDD Finally Adds More Multilingual Unemployment Support — After Advocates Mount Legal Challenge

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The state's Employment Development Department is drastically expanding language support to better accommodate the at least 7 million Californians who have a first language other than English. (Vojtech Okenka/Pexels)

The state’s Employment Development Department (EDD) will drastically expand language support to better accommodate the at least 7 million Californians who have a first language other than English.

This announcement comes after nearly two years of legal mediation between EDD and advocacy groups around gaps in EDD’s language accommodations that advocates say put many Californians in very vulnerable positions. The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) filed the initial complaint that triggered this mediation, alleging that EDD was in violation of federal and state antidiscrimination mandates related to national origin, ethnic identification and linguistic characteristics.

EDD has been expanding its language support throughout the course of the pandemic with tens of millions in funding through a language-access budget proposal and AB 138, a state bill that tackled unemployment insurance policies and practices. However, the agency’s website and other services are still considerably more accessible for English and Spanish speakers when at least 2.4 million Californians aren’t primary English or Spanish speakers.

According to advocates, an untold number of their clients resorted to paying third parties — who could often have predatory intentions — to help bridge these language support gaps.

"We had somebody who waited seven months [for benefits] and they never even submitted his application," said Marisa Lundin, legal director of the Indigenous Program at California Rural Legal Assistance.

"Sometimes the companies would create [alternate] email addresses for them — hold their usernames and passwords hostage," added Joann Lee, special counsel with LAFLA. "They had to constantly pay to go back. Some were requiring a percentage of the benefits every time."

The agreement is also being memorialized through a court filing — meaning the groups involved are basically filing a lawsuit, and then settling with EDD. It's intended to hold EDD accountable for implementing adjustments that will ensure Californians who aren’t primary English speakers will be better able to secure the support they need, through direct communication with EDD, going forward.

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So what's changing at EDD around multilingual support?

According to a press release from EDD, the agency will expand the number of dedicated phone lines with multilingual agents and the spectrum of written translations for online resources and applications.

"Effective immediately, EDD is required to provide real-time oral interpretation over the phone, so when claimants call EDD … it has to get an interpreter on the line in the language the claimant needs so that they can really communicate," said Winnie Kao, senior counsel at Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus.

If EDD is unable to provide an agent with the needed language skills immediately, Kao said the agency is required to call the claimant back with the requested interpreter within five business days, though there are extra barriers that come up with these callbacks that are worth acknowledging.

The advocates KQED interviewed confirmed that people who struggle with language barriers also are often less likely to have good access to the technological tools, like reliable internet or smartphones, that can make getting through to EDD easier.

EDD also has agreed to establish a multilingual advisory board. Lundin of California Rural Legal Assistance says the positive thing about this aspect of the agreement is that "it really recognizes that this is a professional area. This is a whole profession, providing language services, and it's complex and it warrants investment and dedicated staff."

"It's not something that somebody could do in their free time on top of other responsibilities that they have at the agency," said Lundin.

Advocates hope that this step from EDD can serve as a model for other state agencies to learn how to provide more meaningful language access going forward.

"I think it's worth noting that these state agencies are required by law to provide meaningful language access," noted Kao. This requirement extends to "all Californians, including these claimants, who are entitled to these benefits, that pay into these benefits," Kao said, emphasizing how people "desperately need these benefits in time of crisis."

"This isn't something extra. It's not like a charitable thing. It's a legal mandate," said Kao.

Find details of the upcoming changes to EDD on LAFLA's site, in English, Spanish, Tagalog, Arabic, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Dari, Farsi, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Punjabi, Russian, Thai and Vietnamese.

If you're seeking help with unemployment insurance claims, you can call EDD's Unemployment Customer Service Center (open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. PT, seven days a week except state holidays). Starting March 3, these hours will change to 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. PT, Monday through Friday.

  • English and Spanish: (800) 300-5616
  • Cantonese: (800) 547-3506
  • Mandarin: (866) 303-0706
  • Vietnamese: (800) 547-2058
  • California Relay Service (711): Provide the UI number — (800) 300-5616 — to the operator
  • TTY: (800) 815-9387