Unemployment application process fails immigrants

By Huong Nguyen, New Mexico Asian Family Center
This article appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on September 7, 2020.

It is hard to believe the undue barriers Tram Tran and thousands of workers and out-of-work New Mexicans are going through to get the help they need and deserve during this difficult time.

Since April 2016, Tram has been a nail technician at Princess Spa and Nails. Her workplace shut down in March of this year. With the loss of income, Tram, her husband and their 18-month-old baby struggled to survive.

It was their first time experiencing unemployment. Tram went online to apply for unemployment benefits, but there were no applications or assistance available in Vietnamese. The process was unclear and misleading. The page crashed before she could submit, forcing her to start over again. Her account then got locked, and she didn’t understand what had happened. She called the Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS) hot line.

For weeks, it took her hours of waiting only to be randomly disconnected, or connected with representatives who said they could not address her problems. There were times when the line was transferred to a supervisor but then suddenly disconnected.

“I called DWS every single day, and I know the numbers and options by heart now,” said Tram, “It would have been OK if I just knew what was going on with my account.” She believed she put in the correct information, but the system kept saying her account wasn’t working and there were no explanations.

During this time, Tram and her family dipped into their savings to pay for groceries, diapers, mortgage, car payment and utility bills. She didn’t know how long it would last and what they could do to survive. “I am not getting much sleep, I have no idea what is next. So many people are mentally and emotionally checking out and I do not want to be one of those.”

By the time her benefits were approved, the system denied her three weeks of back pay. “It’s really unfair being denied because the system fails,” Tram said. When she called again, she was automatically sent to voicemail, and her problems went unaddressed. She was very disappointed and felt DWS didn’t listen to her. After months of waiting, Tram called and told us that she finally received her back pay on July 27.

At the New Mexico Asian Family Center (NMAFC), Tram’s story is only one among many. Since March, NMAFC, the only nonprofit in the state that provides culturally and linguistically tailored programs and services to the Pan-Asian community, started to hear many stories from community members who lost their jobs in the pandemic but couldn’t access the unemployment system. We heard these kinds of phrases over and over again: “How am I going to pay rent? How am I going to feed my family? What should I do if the bank forecloses my house?” The current system is leaving behind thousands of workers like Tram, especially non-English speaking immigrants and refugees.

On May 1, after working for weeks with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and other partners, NMAFC sent in a letter with sign-ons from over 40 organizations and individuals to DWS Secretary Bill McCamley. Since then, we have barely seen any changes.

The unemployment system is built to provide a safety net for all working New Mexicans when they need it. NMAFC and organizations supporting workers’ rights in New Mexico call on DWS to fix problems and remove barriers to unemployment benefits so that all our working families can access benefits. Tram calls on DWS to provide applicants clear in-language instructions and applications, such as a video to help non-English speakers fill out their applications correctly so that no one has to experience the same situation as she.