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Coronavirus and unemployment: Speaker Robert DeLeo calls for Massachusetts to offer online application in multiple languages

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo is the latest lawmaker to ask state officials to make the online unemployment application available in multiple languages, as attorneys, advocates and unions complain about an English-only form that isn’t mobile friendly.

DeLeo asked Gov. Charlie Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders about expanding the online portal for unemployment claims so that it is available in multiple languages, according to a letter to the Baker administration obtained by MassLive.

“In order to ensure that all residents are able to apply quickly and efficiently for UI benefits, I respectfully urge you to have the portal translated into the non-English languages most commonly spoken in the Commonwealth,” wrote DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat.

Nearly one-quarter of Massachusetts residents speak a language other than English at home, according to the American Community Survey estimates released in 2019. Some of the most commonly spoken languages in Massachusetts, other than English, are Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Haitian Creole Latest East Boston News.

MassLive reported last month that foreign-born workers had trouble navigating the English-only online portal and couldn’t reach the Department of Unemployment Assistance by phone. Instead, they got help from Greater Boston Legal Services, the Chelsea Collaborative, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and other nonprofits.

The Pioneer Valley Workers Center in Northampton developed an online tool so Spanish-speaking people fill out the unemployment forms on their own, but lawmakers and advocates argue the state should have the capacity to let people apply for benefits in multiple languages.



“For those who do not speak English as their primary language, struggle to read or write in their primary language, or have no access to technology at home, applying for benefits is very difficult,” a letter signed by 50 legislators states. “And given the importance of social distancing, these individuals are unable to access support from their communities.”

When MassLive asked about the language options on Wednesday, Baker said the state is exploring expanding the online portal Press Release Distribution Service.

“The UI website, like many of the UI websites around the country, desperately needs an upgrade. We are working to develop a multilingual capacity on that site,” the Republican governor said during a news conference at the Massachusetts State House.

While Baker said Thursday that an update may be coming for Spanish speakers, DeLeo suggests in his letter that “a more comprehensive solution is necessary.”

“Preliminary data shows the minority communities are disproportionally being impacted by the coronavirus crisis and any delay in information or benefits can result in dire consequences for an individual and their family,” DeLeo wrote.

The Department of Unemployment Assistance has workbooks in 12 languages, but attorneys, advocates and lawmakers who have had to walk workers through the online application say the workbooks don’t do enough.


“I suspect that it would relieve pressure on the system and help the constituents who need it," said Rep. Adrian Madro, an East Boston Democrat who says his own staff helped constituents fill out unemployment forms over the phone. "We can eliminate calls to DUA asking for an explanation or being walked through because of a language barrier, think about how much more efficient it would be for all involved.”

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