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Can you keep a secret? After months of pressure, the state’s Department of Labor is finally offering translations to unemployment benefit applicants who don’t speak English. But they’re not publicizing it–in fact, the service is so far under wraps that many of their own staff don’t even know it exists.

Ever since the DOL eliminated in-person applications for the benefits in 2000, immigrants have struggled with the confusing, English- and Spanish-only voicemail system everybody must navigate in order to file (except Chinese speakers, who sued for, and got, in-person applications with translators).

Until recently, anybody who didn’t speak English, Spanish or Chinese had to find their own translator and set up a conference call in order to file an unemployment claim. The result, said immigrant groups, is that many immigrants simply don’t file claims.

Things looked to be changing in early March, when the DOL contracted with an outside translation service, offering translation in 120-plus languages, according to DOL spokeswoman Betsy McCormack. Since then, she says, 100 people have used the system successfully.

But last Friday, when City Limits called the DOL’s 15 “employment centers,” which the agency’s website says to call for information, only one of the DOL staffers who answered the phones was even vaguely aware of the new service. (Nine centers had answering machine messages, only four of which referred callers to a voice mail system through which the translation services are available.)

If the state’s staff is in the dark, so are immigrants. “We didn’t know there was translation available–that’s news to me!” exclaimed Sandra Romain of the Haitian-Americans United for Progress. Every Monday, Romain goes through the voicemail system with one client, a Haitian cemetery worker who gets laid off seasonally.

For those who do know about the system, there is one other glitch: The system requires applicants to answer a series of questions in either English or Spanish before getting to the translations.

McCormack said the DOL isn’t telling the public or its staff about the program because for now it’s only offered in New York City. “Because it’s a pilot, we want to make sure everything’s in place,” said McCormack. “It’s a quality control thing.” She added that once her agency extends the service to the rest of the state–by the end of April–DOL plans to publish notices in community newspapers.

But advocates who work with immigrants want the DOL to launch a splashier publicity campaign, and to do what states like Washington do: welcome each caller with a choice of at least 12 languages. “People are entitled to these benefits. We have to make an effort to make them accessible,” fumed Jonathan Rosen of the New York Unemployment Project, which demonstrated outside the DOL’s West 54th Street offices on March 12. “If people can’t access the Unemployment Insurance system, they can’t get vital benefits … that are often the only thing standing between them and eviction, bankruptcy and poverty.”

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