The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (ACLU of RI) and Rhode Island Legal Services (RILS) have filed a formal complaint with the United States Department of Labor (USDOL) against the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (RIDLT) for failing to provide non-English speaking residents with meaningful access to the agency’s critical unemployment insurance (UI) services.
The complaint, on behalf of Gracianne Noel, a Haitian Creole speaker, argues that RIDLT is in violation of a federal law known as Title VI, which requires agencies receiving federal funding to provide meaningful access to programs and services for individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP). The complaint comes nearly four years after the RIDLT entered into a Conciliation Agreement with USDOL for an earlier breach of its Title VI obligations regarding the nondiscriminatory provision of UI services.
According to the complaint, Ms Noel was repeatedly deprived of critical UI benefits to which she was legally entitled as a result of RIDLT’s failure to offer access to information in her native language. In order to qualify for and receive UI benefits, individuals must call in weekly via the RIDLT TeleServe system to report job search activities and earnings. Currently, the TeleServe program is available in English, with Spanish and Portuguese available only after a lengthy message. The complaint notes that, for LEP individuals whose primary language is other than these, the agency:
“expects Ms. Noel and other similarly situated individuals to contact the general TeleServe number and then blindly follow a seven-step labyrinth of prompts in English in order to finally reach a language line. However, before ultimately accessing an interpreter on the language line, the caller must first communicate his or her need for assistance to an RIDLT staff person who may prove unable to understand the caller and his of her request for assistance.”
The complaint was filed by RILS attorney Veronika Kot and ACLU volunteer attorney Jennifer Doucleff. Kot said, “RIDLT is not providing meaningful access to unemployment insurance benefits for many limited English speakers, despite prior intervention by and agreements with the US Department of Labor, which found such lack of access to be in violation of federal law. Unemployment insurance is a critical benefit for individuals who are temporarily jobless through no fault of their own, and is used to secure basic necessities such as food or housing. Yet many applicants and recipients are being asked to navigate a weekly telephone reporting system in a language they do not understand or to respond to notices that affect their benefits but which they cannot read.”
The complaint asks USDOL to remedy the ongoing problems in a number of ways, including requiring RIDLT to provide an alternative to TeleServe for languages not available with that system; having language assistance information be a part of all notices sent out to UI applicants; and establishing a process that identifies applicants’ language needs immediately at application.
Steven Brown, ACLU of RI executive director, said, “As part of an agreement reached in 2013 with the Department of Labor, RIDLT was required to create and implement a plan to ensure that individuals with limited proficiency in English can effectively participate in the State’s UI program. They have failed to do so, and we are hopeful that USDOL will step in again and finally ensure the agency’s compliance with this important federal civil rights law.”