By Kathreen Harrison

Navigating the economic and health perils of life during the COVID-19 crisis is hard for the most privileged among us. Even for Mainers who speak English, have access to the internet at home, and are comfortable with technology, the challenges we have faced every day since March 12, when Maine’s coronavirus crisis escalated, can seem insurmountable. Imagine then what it’s like to live in Maine during this anxious time with limited or no English, no internet at home, or little familiarity with technology.

Take filing for unemployment. The process involves phone calls with lots of wait time, or online forms, or both. But what if you don’t understand what the message on the phone is saying while you wait, or can’t understand the specialist who finally answers the phone, or you don’t have a laptop to file online, or can’t read the form.

As Inza Outtara, State Refugee Health Coordinator, Office of Maine Refugee Services, Catholic Charities said in a virtual meeting between immigrant leaders and Christina Starr of the Department of Labor, on April 10, “All services that used to be offered in person are going virtual and using platforms in English.  But many community members do not speak English and do not have the technical skills required to access the most needed social services online. This remains the biggest challenge.”

Inza Ouattara before the days of social distancing

The past month has shone a bright light on the challenges faced by non-English speakers, and the technologically limited, in Maine. When coronavirus hit the state, one clear gap was quickly exposed – materials were not ready on city and state sites in multiple languages to inform immigrants of how to stay safe, how to help prevent the spread of the virus, where to go for healthcare, and how to file for unemployment. Yet the safety of everyone was interconnected, with everyone dependent on reliable information circulating efficiently amongst all members of the community, which meant that the significance of insufficient linguistic access became abundantly clear to those outside the immigrant community at last.

Immigrant groups and many nonprofits dove in and worked hard to produce translated materials, which is now available on government sites, and elsewhere. But valuable time was lost in the early stage of the pandemic when many immigrants didn’t know the danger they were in, because everything was in English. Even one month into the crisis, much information remains English-only, and interpretation systems are limited. And what about those who don’t have internet at home to access all the digital information?

The 2-1-1 Helpline, one option available for those without internet, is a case in point. Reports have come in of New Mainers dialing the 2-1-1 Helpline and hanging up in discouragement because they heard only English, and couldn’t understand what was said. One caller said a specialist hung the phone up on him when he spoke in Somali. Another said that while an interpreter was available, the 2-1-1 specialist was not, so he was asked to call back another time.

Nikki Busmanis of United Way of Mid-Maine agrees that interpreter services can be a little tricky to muster on 2-1-1 Maine. Busmanis explained that just before the coronavirus hit, 2-1-1 Maine had become aware of the language equity access issue, and had just developed a long-term plan to have alternative pathways available, with messages in multiple languages indicating what number to press to get to a specialist and an interpreter. “The lift to do that right now because of all the hecticness within the COVID-29 context unfortunately makes this not possible right now,” she added regretfully.

As a stopgap measure, Busmanis recommends trying the alternate route of calling 1-866-811-5695, which connects the caller directly with a 2-1-1 Specialist, without having to listen to a string of messages in English. Once the caller is connected, they should say the name of the language they need, then wait while an interpreter is located. Sometimes the interpreter may need to call back. Busmanis emphasized there may be some waiting involved, but a specialist and an interpreter will be found eventually, and the caller should not give up.

Julia Trujillo Luengo, Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity of the City of Portland, emphasized that the different agencies in the state are aware of the linguistic access issue and had been working to solve it, but unfortunately the crisis hit before that could happen. She expressed her concern, saying, “All Mainers should be able to rely on 2-1-1 and other similar resources in this crisis when we are dealing with life threatening situations.”

Julia Trujillo and her children at an event in 2019

Of course, a primary concern for so many at this time is job loss, and the need to file for unemployment. Claude Rwagange, Executive Director of ProsperityME, explained that the filing process is virtually inaccessible to many immigrants.

“Every day we receive more calls from people who need help filing. These are people who don’t have access to the internet, or who don’t speak English. What happens if they get a call from the Department of Labor and don’t understand it? How are they going to handle weekly phone calls with the Department of Labor when they don’t speak English? What is needed is case management.”

Mufalo Chitam, Executive Director of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, and Baba Ly, Assistant Director, Refugee and Immigration Services of Catholic Charities, agreed with Rwaganje that immigrants filing for Unemployment benefits need ongoing assistance from people equipped with cultural and linguistic knowledge who can help them understand and navigate the benefits system.

They urged that when the Department hires the 100+ new employees they have announced, they should be sure to hire some immigrants.

Baba Ly, Assistant Director of Catholic Charities Maine Refugee and Immigration Services

Starr said she is aware of the problems immigrants face when trying to file for unemployment benefits. “The application is nuanced and hard to fill out even for an English speaker,” she said, and she referred to a ‘dire need for the translation of resources.’ She also said that translation work has been underway, and documents published in eight languages will be available soon on how to apply for unemployment benefits. But Starr recognizes that frustration has been building as non-English speakers have been trying and failing to get through the application process.

“Commissioner Fortman is keenly aware of accessibility issues. She is serious about the need for building a relationship with the immigrant community for the long-term,” said Starr.

Fatuma Hussein, Executive Director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, expressed the bright side of the situation. She said she is glad the challenges immigrants face are finally being more widely appreciated by others. “As difficult as this situation with the virus is, the crisis is giving us an opportunity to revamp systems, address where the gaps are, transform the system,” she said.