Michael (not his real name), a Cantonese speaking restaurant worker, lost his job at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, he obtained unemployment benefits from the California Employment Development Department (EDD) and due to the ongoing pandemic, was eligible to continue receiving these benefits for an extended period of time.
In early 2021, EDD notified Michael that he needed to verify his identity to continue to receive benefits. Due to language barriers, Michael did not understand the urgency of EDD’s request, as the notification was only in English. Therefore, he missed the deadline and received another notice — this one stating he was no longer eligible to receive unemployment benefits. He had 30 days to appeal the decision. At first, someone told Michael he had nothing to worry about. When he didn’t receive benefits for several months, he reached out to EDD. Despite repeated efforts, he was not able to get through to EDD. Almost a year passed before another legal services provider helped Michael file an appeal.
Unfortunately, Michael’s story was all too common, as many workers like him struggled to access EDD. Although language barriers had posed issues with accessing EDD for many years, these challenges were greatly exposed and exacerbated during the pandemic, as workers using languages other than English experienced numerous setbacks trying to obtain benefits and communicate with EDD representatives. With phone lines impenetrable, the only option to access EDD was online, where the information was largely only in English with some Spanish. These obstacles proved especially challenging during the public health crisis, when many low-income Californians lost their jobs.
To address these language barriers and challenges, LAFLA filed a language rights complaint during the height of the pandemic, which eventually resulted in a settlement agreement to enhance and expand language access within EDD. “LAFLA and our partners successfully fought to ensure EDD will provide unemployment benefits, services, and resources in all languages used by California residents,” noted Managing Attorney Brenton Inouye, who oversees LAFLA’s Asian Pacific Islander (API) Community Outreach Project. “We reached a settlement with EDD earlier this year that expands language access and guarantees California workers will get the help they need, regardless of the language they speak.” Language access improvements implemented through 2024 ensures that EDD will uphold Californians’ civil rights and embraces communities’ vast language abilities.
Like many clients, Michael’s problems were not isolated to just one issue. He was also facing eviction due to his lack of income and benefits. “Michael’s benefits were his only source of income after he lost his restaurant job. After EDD stopped issuing his benefits, Michael could not pay his rent, so his landlord sued him in small claims court,” noted LAFLA advocate Bohan Chen, a member of the API Community Outreach Project. “We were able to help him avoid eviction. But it was undeniable that resuming his unemployment benefits was essential to Michael’s daily living.” Bohan decided to take on Michael’s EDD issues as well.
Equipped with the strength of the recent settlement agreement and improved language access at EDD, LAFLA’s Bohan Chen represented Michael at his hearing before the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. Because Michael had filed his appeal nearly a year after the deadline, he had to show good cause for the delay. Bohan worked with Michael to prepare and submit documents and statements and represented Michael at his appeals hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Bohan argued that language barriers at EDD constituted good cause for the late appeal, as all determination notices and appeal requests were in English, and Michael could not understand them. The ALJ agreed with Bohan’s argument and reversed the EDD determination.
“I am very grateful to LAFLA for helping me restore my EDD benefits. It means a lot to me that I can use the money to pay my rent and continue to live,” said Michael. “Thank you, LAFLA, for all the help you have given me.”