Heidi Huynh runs a small shop in Portland’s Jade District where she usually sells pre-paid mobile plans. But these days, you might find her customers behind the counter, sitting at the store’s computer, getting Huynh’s help filing for unemployment benefits.

Many of her customers only speak Vietnamese. But the online unemployment application is only in English.

“They’re stressed out because they need money. They lost a job,” Huynh said. “They just want something to help.”

In Oregon, the only way to apply for regular unemployment benefits online is in English. Interpreters are supposed to be available by phone, but the lines are so jammed they are virtually impenetrable. That’s hard on people also experiencing poverty, who don’t have the cell phone minutes to spend hours on hold.

Huynh’s staff complains that she is running a temple instead of a shop, giving away services for free. She wishes there were more help for people with limited English proficiency.

“A wish is just a wish,” she said. “It’s hard.”

Heidi Huynh stands in her shop in Portland's Jade District on May 12, 2020. She's been helping some Vietnamese speaking customers navigate their unemployment applications in English.

Heidi Huynh stands in her shop in Portland’s Jade District on May 12, 2020. She’s been helping some Vietnamese speaking customers navigate their unemployment applications in English.

Kate Davidson/OPB

The coronavirus pandemic has driven U.S. unemployment to its highest rate since the Great Depression. The Oregon Employment Department has struggled to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers, while grappling with outdated technology, hiring hundreds of staff and ramping up new federal programs.

Those struggles have overshadowed the experiences of Oregonians who have also lost their livelihoods but may lack the English skills to apply for help online. With phone lines blocked, their difficulty accessing the unemployment system raises fundamental questions about equal access to benefits, regardless of language or national origin.

“The unemployment insurance system is overwhelmed and difficult for everyone right now, but low-income people who speak languages other than English face extra and often insurmountable barriers just to apply for this critical safety net program,” said attorney Beth Englander of the Oregon Law Center in a statement to OPB.

Oregon has two systems to provide unemployment benefits. There’s the traditional unemployment insurance system, in which people apply for benefits by phone or online in English. There’s also the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA, which provides benefits to people who usually can’t get them: the self-employed, contract and gig workers. PUA applications are available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Russian.

Both systems must adhere to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as other laws that prohibit discrimination based on national origin in programs that receive federal funding.

On May 11, the U.S. Department of Labor issued new guidance to the states on how to ensure their unemployment programs comply with civil rights laws and regulations. It requires states “to translate written, oral, or electronic ‘vital information,’” including applications for unemployment benefits.

Spanish is the most widely spoken language in Oregon after English, but the Oregon Employment Department doesn’t provide a way to apply for regular unemployment benefits online in Spanish.

Laid-off workers who press the green “Español” button on the employment department’s website will see another button that looks promising. It’s labeled “Abra un Nuevo Reclamo.” But clicking that won’t initiate a claim. Instead, it leads to a general phone number that is inevitably busy.

“If they are just calling a general number and there’s no automated way that directs people to another phone line, or somebody who speaks Spanish, that’s a huge concern,” said Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project.

Emsellem pointed to segregated phone lines as a way to ensure that people can access benefits in languages other than English.

“Federal civil rights laws don’t go out the window no matter the crisis situation,” he said. “This gets back to the issue of being adequately prepared for a recession - so that when recessions hit, these kinds of access issues don’t undermine the ability of people to collect their unemployment checks.”

Gail Krumenauer, the employment department’s interim communications director, acknowledged that routing Spanish-language claimants to a phone number was “not ideal.”

She said technical constraints in the oregon.gov family of websites prevent the department from deploying online claims systems in multiple languages.

To help compensate for that, the state built a new COVID-19 website which it intends to translate into a dozen languages. It’s meant to be a more dynamic platform, with videos and FAQs about navigating unemployment applications. So a customer in Heidi Huynh’s shop could theoretically watch a Vietnamese-language video on the new website to learn how to fill out unemployment forms, in English, on the old.

The employment department has also begun a partnership with several immigrant and refugee service groups, essentially deputizing case managers to help initiate unemployment claims.

Social worker Victor Leo takes a call at his office in SE Portland on May 15, 2020. He's been translating the state's English-language unemployment forms for worried clients.

Social worker Victor Leo takes a call at his office in SE Portland on May 15, 2020. He’s been translating the state’s English-language unemployment forms for worried clients.

David Stuckey/OPB

Meanwhile, Victor Leo’s phone has been ringing non-stop. The social worker spends long hours in his Jade District office, translating unemployment applications into Cantonese for worried clients. The governor’s ban on dine-in restaurant service hit his community hard, because it’s common for whole families to work in the restaurant industry.

“They don’t know how they’re going to survive,” he said. “Being a new immigrant, you don’t have a lot of money and then all of a sudden the whole family has no income.”

He said people are relieved to learn they can apply for benefits. With Leo’s help they submit their applications, often to get stuck in the same line as thousands of their English-speaking neighbors.