Murfreesboro—When Javier Mendoza received notification he was denied unemployment insurance from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, he didn’t understand.
The letter was written in English, a language he had indicated to the state that he was less than proficient with.
“I can only understand a word here and there,” Mendoza said through a translator in an interview with The Daily News Journal.
By the time Mendoza, a legal immigrant from Mexico, found someone to translate the letter, the appeal deadline had expired, and the state concluded he didn’t have good grounds to file a late appeal.
A legal advocacy group took up his case, and a recent decision in his favor from Rutherford County Chancery Court has put an unemployment check in Mendoza’s pockets and changed how the department communicates with immigrant workers.
Chancellor Robert E. Corlew III ruled the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development must communicate with non-English speaking workers in a language they understand.
“The department is not obligated to send all notices in all languages,” he stated in a judgment entered March 31. “However, when the department knows a claimant is limited English proficient, the department is obligated to provide notice that is reasonably calculated to convey to the claimant the decision and deadlines for his appeal.”
Barbara Futter, managing attorney for Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, who is based in Murfreesboro and filed the lawsuit Dec. 22, on behalf of Mendoza, said Corlew’s decision is going to affect all state agencies receiving federal funds.
Other advocates said Mendoza’s case is an important one.
“It establishes the principal that workers have the right to reasonable notice of their unemployment benefits, and that is true even for some workers who don’t speak English,” said Douglas Stevick, managing attorney for Southern Migrant Legal Services.
By the time of the ruling, though, Mendoza, who has been in the United States legally for 15 years, had moved to Texas to find work in the oil fields.
Because he speaks little English, Mendoza said he runs into problems communicating on a regular basis but never something as challenging as trying to get his unemployment benefits.
Because of growth in immigrant and refugee populations, Tennessee has had difficulties catching up in providing services that are accessible to residents less than proficient in English, Stevick said.
Besides the Hispanic population, which has grown in the state of Tennessee by 35 percent from 2000 to 2004, the Kurdish, Sudanese and Somali populations have grown in large numbers.