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Working Through Barriers / Advocates say many need help understanding jobless benefits
Newsday; Long Island, N.Y.; Mar 19, 2002; Patricia Kitchen. STAFF WRITER;

The New York State Department of Labor is starting to put the word out on how laid-off workers who are eligible can collect the 13 weeks of extended unemployment benefits approved by Congress.

The words, however, are mainly in English and Spanish, not in Russian, Creole, Chinese and the dozens of other languages spoken by the region's work force.

That worries some worker advocates who believe immigrants and others may be left out of assistance they need in a city where, according to the U.S. Census Department, 35.5 percent of residents are from other countries.

People are confused, said Lana Cheung, education director for UNITE Local 23-25, a union representing garment workers, many of whom lost their jobs after Sept. 11.

She is hearing such questions as, "Is [the extension] just for people below Canal Street?" She said they don't realize this applies to the entire nation, which is why she hopes the labor department invites community leaders and others, such as herself, to a briefing so they, in turn, can educate their constituencies.

The state has advertised in 45 newspapers statewide, including Chinese- and Spanish-language publications in the city.

Claimants who speak Chinese can visit two offices in the city to get help. Others will need to ask friends or family members to help them apply through the state's telephone claim system, which is in English and Spanish.

Also, letters are being sent in Spanish and English to those who are potentially eligible, with one requirement being that they filed their initial claims for benefits after March 15, 2001.

However, among the complications is that many people will no longer be at the same address, says Jonathan Rosen, director of the New York Unemployment Project in Downtown Manhattan. Since originally filing for unemployment insurance, they may have been evicted or moved in with relatives or to shelters.

His group estimates that 150,000 New York residents who have exhausted their benefits may be eligible now, as may up to 325,000 who will exhaust their benefits in coming months. The Unemployment Project is asking the state to run radio spots on ethnic language stations, to set up a multilingual 800 number and to reopen walk-in centers in hard-hit areas.

On Long Island, lack of English proficiency can be a "crusher" for some families, but it's not the prime issue for most, said John Bingham, director of immigrant services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

He said many people have complained about the difficulty of dealing with the bureaucracy in getting benefits, saying it's not worth the trouble.

Linda Chow, 65, of Brooklyn, a laid-off sewing machine operator whose employer shut its doors in December, would appreciate some answers to her questions in her native language, Cantonese, as she speaks very little English. Like seasonal workers, she moves from work to unemployment, depending on business cycles, and she wonders if she is eligible for the extension.

"I'm very confused," she said through an interpreter.

"For people in New York who are unemployed, the program is still largely failing them," Rosen said. This is despite the fact that in a new report New York State received a passing grade for its unemployment insurance system. But New York did fare poorly when it came to eligibility requirements for benefits, according to the report, prepared by The Economic Policy Institute, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and National Employment Law Project.

New York's 20-hour-a-week workers who are earning the minimum wage are not eligible to collect unemployment. And these are just the people, Rosen said, who are "one paycheck away from eviction."

For more information on the extended unemployment benefits, check or call 888-209-8124.

Caption: Newsday Photo / Jiro Ose - Laid-off employees like Linda Chow, a garment worker, may be eligible for the extended unemployment benefits passed by Congress but not know it because they don't speak English well.

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