Hispanic Liaison, other advocates file complaint over NCDESC language access discrimination

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RALEIGH — The North Carolina Justice Center, American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, and Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy filed an administrative complaint June 29 on behalf of the Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County/El Vínculo Hispano.

The complaint, filed with the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s Office of Civil Rights (USDOL) against the N.C. Dept. of Commerce Division of Employment Security (NCDES) alleges inadequate language access for unemployment benefit claimants in North Carolina. The organizations request that USDOL investigate NCDES for violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI guarantees that persons with limited English proficiency (LEP) have meaningful access to federally funded services such as unemployment benefits. Failure to provide language access services is a form of national origin discrimination.

The complaint alleges that NCDES failed to provide a way for LEP unemployment benefits claimants to identify and request services in their primary language. According to the complaint, NCDES failed to provide equitable service for LEP claimants through their online, telephone, and written communication systems, failed to provide adequate staff training, and did not efficiently manage the claims process for LEP applicants.

“Failure to provide meaningful language access has critical effects on the lives of people who need unemployment benefits and puts our immigrant communities at risk, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Michele Delgado, Staff Attorney with the ACLU of North Carolina. “We urge the North Carolina Division of Employment Security to completely translate all vital unemployment insurance documents and ensure processes are more equitable for all North Carolinians, regardless of the languages they use. As a state, North Carolina can and should do better.”

Although the significant increase in unemployment benefits applicants during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated language access barriers at NCDES, this is not the first time advocates have called attention to the agency’s failure to abide by Title VI. NCDES was formerly subject to a 2016 settlement agreement resulting from a Title VI investigation by USDOL.

After entering into the settlement agreement, NCDES later transitioned to a new online claimant portal that has yet to be adapted for LEP claimants, resulting in a failure to comply with many of the underlying issues identified in that settlement. The new online portal does not provide a way for individuals to complete tasks necessary to receive unemployment benefits in any language other than English. As a result, LEP clients must use the telephone line to conduct necessary business related to their unemployment benefits. Claimants experienced significant delays and holds when calling the telephone line, and received inconsistent services due to NCDES outsourcing its call center during the COVID-19 pandemic. Using the telephone line still involves considerable delays while LEP clients await interpreters, and the automated phone system has limited menu options for non-English speakers.

Additionally, NCDES does not mail out documents in languages other than English, despite having translated copies of these documents. Clients who need a document in a language other than English must seek it out on the NCDES website or call NCDES and wait for an interpreter to receive individualized information.

NCDES services are only provided through the online portal or phone system. LEP clients do not have the opportunity to go to a local office for in-person assistance.

The organizations involved with the complaint made repeated efforts to ensure that NCDES provide the legally required language access services, but the state agency has yet to rectify or expand its services for LEP claimants.

“NCDES has long been aware of their obligations to provide adequate language access,” said Carol Brooke, Senior Staff Attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center. “While under a settlement agreement with USDOL, NCDES revamped its online system without considering the needs of LEP individuals. We hope that this complaint will result in online and telephone systems accessible to speakers of high-frequency languages, training for staff, and complete translations of vital documents to ensure reasonable access to these vital benefits.”

For more information, contact Carol Brooke, senior attorney, North Carolina Justice Center, at carol@ncjustice.org, or Ilana Dubester, executive director, Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County/El Vínculo Hispano, at ilana@evhnc.org or 919-260-6210.

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