North Carolina’s unemployment office has become swamped during the COVID-19 pandemic, with claims filed by 1.3 million workers since the beginning of the pandemic on March 15. The N.C. Division of Employment Security has quintupled its staff to deal with the newfound demand, and its website indicates that 69 percent of workers who’ve applied since March 15 have been approved for benefits totaling $7.5 billion.
But receiving unemployment insurance benefits assumes that a worker is able to file a claim in the first place. For the state’s 800,000 immigrants—who make up 11 percent of the overall workforce—that’s far from guaranteed.
“Whether it’s with unemployment insurance or schooling and education or our health system, a lot of these disparities have been heightened greatly,” says Eliazar Posada, Community Engagement & Advocacy Department Director at El Centro Hispano. “This pandemic has really made [this] unequivocally evident for anyone who had any questions about it.”
One of the most immediate obstacles to filing a claim is internet access. In North Carolina, workers must file weekly unemployment claims online to receive benefits, but 41 percent of North Carolinians don’t subscribe to broadband internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
The so-called digital divide is particularly pronounced among low-income populations who are most likely to depend on unemployment checks. The FCC doesn’t track broadband adoption among immigrants, but the Pew Research Center found that the Latinx households that Posada serves are the least likely nationwide to be internet subscribers.
“While it’s felt across the board, and no one’s immune from it—rural, urban, white, Black—it does disproportionately affect the most vulnerable,” says Amy Huffman, a research and policy specialist for North Carolina’s Broadband Infrastructure Office.
Getting online is just one hurdle. Nandini Sridhar, who works with refugees at Church World Service, says that filling out a government form that’s only available in English can be intimidating for immigrants unfamiliar with navigating the American bureaucracy.
“Just because of the complicated system and the terminology, we’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with our clients providing essential services and advocating to help them get through the process,” she says.
Posada tells a similar story. El Centro employees regularly hold calls with immigrant families to walk them through the unemployment application process, but because the DES site has been so inundated with applicants, they’ve had to log on at low-traffic times to avoid crashing out of the server.
“That’s great, but at the same time, that shouldn’t be happening,” Posada says. “You shouldn’t be needing two or three people to help you fill an application before dawn because the system is so convoluted that you can’t do it alone.”
North Carolina is home to an estimated 325,000 undocumented immigrants who make up 5 percent of the state’s overall workforce. These undocumented immigrants paid an estimated $262.7 million in state tax, but none of them qualify for unemployment insurance.
“Those are the folks that we hear the most from, and there’s no way for us to help them as far as unemployment insurance,” Posada says. “We would tell them, ‘There’s really no reason for you to apply because of your status. You won’t be able to receive any benefits, so don’t even waste your time on that.’”
The Division of Employment Security told the INDY that interpreters are available to help non-native speakers with the initial filing of claims, adjudication, and appeals, and benefit seekers are technically allowed to file their weekly certifications over the phone. Doing so risks a lengthy wait time, but Posada and Sridhar also say that the process of receiving unemployment is frustrating for everyone and that DES is stretched very thin.
“I do know that the office has an unprecedented surge in applicants, which definitely is a challenge to quickly navigate around, especially when people can’t seek out in-person services,” Sridhar says.
Wait times to receive benefits for an unemployment claim are abysmal for everyone in North Carolina—the state ranked worst in the country for timely payouts of unemployment benefits in 2019—but for immigrants, who have to spend time overcoming a host of additional obstacles, the wait can become unbearable. In some cases, Posada says, qualified families may actually seek out jobs that pay them less than DES would just to pay bills.
“People still have to eat,” he says. “If they had anything left over or saved up, it’s already gone. Rent’s going to still be due.”
Organizations like El Centro and the Church World Service have helped provide a stopgap for families who are either awaiting or unqualified for benefits by connecting them to jobs, helping with bills, and providing food. The N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office, too, is stepping up to bridge the digital divide. The Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Program, for example, has already awarded $15 million in state funding to increase access to the internet with an additional $32 million to be awarded by the end of the year.
“COVID is both an encouraging time to do this work and also very, very hard, because closing the digital divide is something we’ve been advocating for a number of years,” Huffman says. “I don’t think this pandemic would have hit this hard if all the meaningful steps had been taken to fully close divides prior to this.”
It’s also not unheard of for a state to expand unemployment benefits to undocumented workers. California unrolled a $75 million disaster-relief fund specifically for undocumented workers alongside its earliest COVID-19 relief measures.
But that was in a state where foreign-born residents make up more than a quarter of the total population—and where Democrats control both houses of Congress and the governorship. Just last year, North Carolina’s legislature passed a bill that would have required state law enforcement to cooperate with ICE officials who deported undocumented immigrants. That bill was vetoed by Roy Cooper, but Posada says it clearly illustrates that unemployment insurance for undocumented people is “not going to be on the table.”
“I’m not asking for North Carolina to pay all the bills of all undocumented people and get them a house. That’s ridiculous,” Posada says. “What I’m asking for is, let’s give them the fair share that they’ve earned by being contributing members of society, by being part of our workforce, and in many cases being the backbone of industry.”
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