The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and R.I.
Legal Services (RILS) have filed a formal complaint with the U.S. 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
“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
The complaint was filed by RILS attorney Veronika Kot and
ACLU volunteer attorney Jennifer Doucleff. Kot said today: “RIDLT is not
providing meaningful access to unemployment insurance benefits for many limited
English speakers, despite prior intervention by and agreements with the U.S.
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
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