Improving Access to Unemployment Benefits

Unemployment insurance is a particularly critical protection for low-income workers. In the event of job loss, these benefits can save families from losing their homes or falling deeper into poverty. Yet low-income people often face inordinate obstacles to collecting the unemployment benefits to which they are entitled, mainly due to language barriers and an ineffective application process.

In 2013, the NM Center on Law and Poverty filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Center of the U.S. Department of Labor to report unlawful discrimination by the NM Department of Workforce Solutions, the state agency that administers the unemployment insurance system. Our complaint arose from the agency’s decision to move to an unemployment insurance application available only online. The new system was also only in English and the Department stopped publicizing the availability of a telephone option to apply for benefits. As a result, many limited-English proficient individuals were unable to apply for benefits, a problem especially acute in New Mexico because one-third of New Mexicans speak a language other than English at home. The online-only system also raised concerns about age and disability discrimination. In addition, the Department of Workforce Solutions failed to translate vital written unemployment insurance notices into Spanish or other languages spoken by claimants, which made it difficult for these claimants to handle matters like denials and appeals of claims.

Recently, the Department of Workforce Solutions translated its online application system into Spanish. This is a step in the right direction for the Department, which has a legal obligation to ensure equal access to benefits for English and non-English speaking New Mexicans alike.

In October 2015, the Civil Rights Center issued nationwide guidance about online unemployment insurance claims systems like New Mexico’s, which tracked the legal concerns raised by our complaint. The federal guidance made it clear that agencies must provide a means other than web-based systems for filing claims, such as by telephone or in person, in order to comply with unemployment insurance and anti-discrimination laws. The Civil Rights Center also made it clear that websites and vital documents related to claims must be translated so that claimants can understand them, and that failure to do so may amount to unlawful discrimination.

Now that the Civil Rights Center has clarified the standards that New Mexico’s Department of Workforce Solutions must follow with respect to claims filing and language access, the Center on Law and Poverty will continue to monitor the agency to ensure that it provides appropriate access to all New Mexicans.

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