COVID-19 civil rights obligations

The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) provides guidance to counties regarding meeting their civil rights obligations in emergency situations.  Civil rights laws remain in effect when counties take emergency actions such as closing physical offices to the public, shortening office hours, or requiring staff to work from home.

Counties must provide services and administer programs free of discrimination.  During emergencies there can be heightened fear and anxiety leading to increased acts of xenophobia, racism, ableism, transphobia and many other forms of prejudice toward protected classes.  Counties should remind their staff to be mindful of the additional stress and anxiety of their clients.  CDSS recommends that counties make statements that reaffirm their commitment to civil rights protections both internally among their staff and externally to the public.  CDSS also recommends that counties provide refresher trainings to staff on how to provide service in an inclusive, culturally appropriate and sensitive manner.

Counties should remind staff to use the name provided by a person, even if it is different from the name on their record.  County staff should not make assumptions about a person’s sex, gender, gender identity and/or sexual orientation based on their name, their gender expression, their spouse or partner’s name, or their voice, and should use gender neutral language to foster an inclusive environment, until and unless the individual has identified their gender.

It is important to remind staff that COVID-19 is not linked to any race or nationality, and that stigmatizing people because of race or nationality is unlawful.

Counties must ensure that clients are notified of and can obtain information about programs or program changes, including changes in response to emergencies such as shortening office hours or increasing availability of phone interviews.  Counties must publicize this information in understandable and diverse formats in the threshold languages required by law.  Counties must also adopt communication methods that are understandable to people with intellectual, cognitive and psychosocial impairments.

When offices are closed or have shortened hours, office-related activities must continue to meet accessibility and non-discrimination standards.

Services and programs must remain accessible to people with disabilities as counties make changes during an emergency.  If a county designates a location for pick up/drop off of applications and forms, it must comply with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations for physical accessibility.

During medical emergencies such as COVID-19, if persons are advised to stay home, counties should ensure live or recorded messages are available in American Sign Language, Teletypewriter, and Telecommunications Device for the Deaf, and include captioning.  Counties can also consider designating office hours for people with disabilities or other vulnerable people.

Documents and postings on social media with images should have captions and images should be inclusive and not stigmatize disability.

Counties must continue to provide accommodations for people who have vision, hearing or speech disabilities.  Counties must provide auxiliary aids and services when necessary to communicate effectively.

Counties must continue to offer reasonable accommodations to persons with disabilities.  This obligation does not end at intake.  If a county staff member have actual knowledge of an individual’s disability or an individual’s need for an accommodation is obvious, the staff member must offer to assist the individual in self-identifying the disability and/or appropriate accommodations.  County staff should check for disability indicators in the case file prior to contact with the client.  Reasonable accommodations must be offered regardless of the method of contact. There is no limit on the amount of reasonable accommodation requests a person may make, and each request must be analyzed individually.

Counties must make sure they have adequate qualified interpreters and qualified translation services to assist Limited English Proficient individuals.  Counties must continue to maintain up-to-date lists of bilingual staff and remind staff of how to access these individuals.  Counties must also ensure that staff are trained in accessing alternate interpreter resources, including telephonic or video interpretation.

Clients maintain the right to file a discrimination complaint during an emergency or disaster.  Counties are reminded of their duty to actively receive and process civil rights complaints. Complaints can be made verbally or in writing.  Counties cannot require complainants to complete a form as a condition of filing a complaint.  (ACIN I-69-20, November 9, 2020.)