Feb. 4, 2021 1:21 pm

In Chinatown, a great need for more benefits — and better access to them

Misinformation and language barriers prevent many in Chinatown from applying for unemployment compensation or rental assistance.


(Photo from PCDCs Facebook page)

Before the arrival of COVID-19 in Philadelphia last year, there were not a lot of unemployment needs for people to apply for compensation, said Pingho Lee, program manager of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC).

When the city went into quarantine mode after Philadelphians began getting sick, Lee said that everyone within the Chinatown community began to “scramble” in order to obtain secondary income since they lost a job, or were suddenly laid off.

“I think one of our biggest problems was we had to turn our department to really help people access their [unemployment] benefits,” Lee said.

According to Yelp, as of August 31, of last year 163,735 total U.S. businesses have closed since the beginning of the pandemic, a 23 percent increase since July 10.

Pingho Lee. (LinkedIn photo)

There has been a great need within Chinatown for more benefits, according to Lee. Especially on technical support and language access.

“Resources are needed for employment training. The majority of Chinese immigrants work in service and hospitality industries such as restaurants and nail salons, which were hard hit by the pandemic and predicted for slow recovery, Lee said. “The workers have a hard time getting back to their old jobs and need employment training and support to be employed again. Small landlords also need more support.”

The language barrier also leads to lack of access to accurate information, Lee added. Some employers and tax accountants, due to misinformation, discourage employees from applying for UC benefits worried that it will affect their tax rate. And many immigrants do not know their rights

For rental assistance, many PCDC clients rent from Chinese-speaking landlords, and there is no assistance offered to these landlords to complete their part of the application —so some tenants couldn’t apply.

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“No explanation on the timeline and process were published on the website. No application status unless homeowners called. But homeowners were hesitant to call due to the language barrier,” Lee said. “They did not allow time for people to appeal.”

The immigrant community cannot access first-hand information. Most information and updates are in English and not accessible to non-English speakers. PCDC spends time translating these materials to make them available to their community as quickly as possible. Sometimes, however,  it is still too late, Lee added, and their clients lose the opportunities, such as the rental or mortgage assistance.

The morale within Chinatown is mixed. There are those who do not wish to quarantine and attempt to go about their lives normally as best they can, but most within the community are being very careful about the situation.

“But the thing is they do need a lot of information to get them going. So we have been doing what we can since last April through July, we have been doing daily research sharing. We have been offering more support and answering any questions,” Lee said. “Some people are eager to go back to work. It’s just that … many of them are in the food and service industry. It’s hard for them, with their businesses closed, it is hard for them to find a job. And to switch to another occupation.”

PCDC does offer counseling and financial services to their members so that they have equal access to assistance programs. To avoid becoming overwhelmed by all of the information, Lee invites guest speakers who can speak on the topics. Typically the virtual sessions that PCDC holds garner a pretty good turnout.

Like Lee, Yue Wu, PCDC’s neighborhood planning and project manager, identifies language as a primary barrier for Chinatown community members.

Yue Wu. (LinkedIn photo)

“During the crisis, we talk about language a lot because policies are changing every single day and there are new updates and information every day,” she said. “It’s very hard for non-English speakers to keep up with updates. So we tried helping non-English speaking businesses and residents stay current with language access because people really need information right now.”

“Even with the vaccine,” she added, “we are not seeing many promotions in our language and it is definitely going to create barriers for our community to get access to the vaccine.”

Wu added that nonprofit organizations that service non-English speakers and immigrants do need support, maybe funding, and resources because they are overwhelmed.

PCDC has been doing a lot outside of their mission scope to assist people during this crisis, but it would be better, Wu added, if they could provide more resources to nonprofit community-based organizations.

To meet the challenges in the community, Lee believes organizations should be partnering with one another more.

“We could all be sharing resources. I know there are other organizations trying to translate materials, but we may already have it,” Lee said. “Some other agencies may have already translated the information and by partnering we can be more effective in getting all these messages out.”

Generocity is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice.


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