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Guiding New Americans Through the Unemployment Crisis

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Helping New Americans navigate a system that was not designed to serve them is now one of Scarlett Xiong’s most urgent tasks as Employment Counselor at the International Institute of Minnesota. She took a brief break from job triaging to highlight some of the obstacles New Americans are facing as they attempt to access unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic.

Xiong gets straight to the point: “The unemployment insurance system is not meant for people living in poverty; it’s meant to serve people who are middle class and have stable jobs. It’s a 14-year-old system for 9-to-5, full-time workers who only have one job.”

With dozens of inquiries coming into the Institute, Xiong sees the reality of the situation for New Americans. “I’ve had five applicants that have been denied, and they’re the ones who need it the most.” Most of the Institute’s clients receiving denials are lower level English speakers working in hospitality as well as people who are new arrivals. 

“They’re the ones who need it the most.”

“Within a calendar quarter, depending on when you apply, you have to make $3000 or more,” Xiong explains. “If you don’t meet that — even if you’re $2 short — you don’t qualify. When you think about many New Americans who have just arrived,” she adds, “there’s no way they’re going to make $3000 in just three months.” 

As for those clients who have been approved for unemployment benefits, the path has been far from straightforward. If you have multiple jobs, you must choose only one when applying; if approved, the benefits you receive from that one position are unlikely to be sufficient to support a household. The dense application text is also a barrier for English language learners (ELL) and includes many legal documentation requirements that can be difficult for New Americans to follow. 

“If you’re not a U.S. citizen, it’s a lot harder,” Xiong explains. You may have to fax, mail and copy additional documents, and the system itself can be confusing. For example, after filling out the initial unemployment application online, you then need to complete a separate reemployment activity application. Then, you must request benefits and do so again each week — all important details that are not immediately apparent. Phone support provides much more guidance on these details, but the Unemployment Insurance (UI) customer service system is overwhelmed.

“Someone has to really know how to navigate it to know what to do next,” Xiong says. That’s why her role is so crucial, especially to those who feel they have nowhere else to turn for help. She urges those who need assistance, especially if they are ELL, to wait to do the application with an advocate or UI representative to avoid mistakes and payment delays.

It’s not just New Americans who have struggled with the system. Xiong recalls assisting a U.S.-born lawyer who couldn’t decipher the process. “It puts it into perspective,” she says. “It’s difficult for someone who is highly educated. Can you imagine how much harder it is for ELL individuals?” On the application, for example, if you selected the coronavirus as a reason for your unemployment, you were directed to fill out an additional form with complicated instructions. Fortunately, shortly after Institute staff raised these concerns with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), the application was simplified and made more accessible to ELL individuals and all Minnesotans.

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“It’s difficult for someone who is highly educated. Can you imagine how much harder it is for ELL individuals?”

For Xiong, working with each unemployment request can take from one to three hours, the latter for a DACA recipient with complex needs. On a particularly busy day for Xiong, a one-hour appointment morphed into five hours. It turned out that her original client had four family members who also needed help, and she was the only English speaker in the household. As newer Americans who had only been in the country for a few months, none of them qualified for the federal relief check, but they were approved for unemployment benefits. “Ok, I need help with my resume now,” the client said upon completion. “I know these benefits won’t last forever.”

Like thousands of Minnesotans, many New Americans do not have access to child care and have had to stop working because of their parenting responsibilities. One client shared with Xiong that she had been verbally reprimanded by a stranger for bringing her children to the grocery store; “I’m a single mom; I can’t leave my kids at home,” she explained.

“Will I get approved? How am I going to pay my bills? How am I going to feed my kids?” These are the types of questions Xiong is fielding. “It hurts to ask them, ‘Do you have any other resources?’ I know they don’t have any other resources; that’s why they’re here.”

For most of our clients, it is the first time they have ever applied for or even been made aware of unemployment benefits. Xiong mentions the stigma of the program being considered “freeloading” or a “handout” from the government. “No,” she tells clients. “This is your money — your taxes that you’ve paid to the government. This is an earned benefit.”

“These are the people who are serving us.”

While waiting for the verdicts on applications, Xiong and the Institute team go into job coaching mode with our New American clients. Writing resumes, teaching job search techniques, practicing for interviews, exploring training options — these are skills that clients will need now and in a post-virus world. Xiong also worries about New Americans being denied opportunities when the job market opens up if employers are hesitant to hire someone who may have different language or training needs.

As for those clients who are still employed, many are critical workers in the health care field. Xiong has been calling to check in with past clients, several of whom are working on medical supply assembly lines. “They’re saying they don’t have any protective gear, but they’re still working.”

“New Americans and people who are in poverty are impacted the most by the coronavirus when it comes to employment,” Xiong reflects. “These are the people who are serving us. They are in labor-intensive fields that are keeping things running.”

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