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Virginia Employment Commission Under Pressure to Improve

The agency faces a court order mandating it to process backlogged unemployment insurance claims by Labor Day and Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order to fix staffing and technology issues by Oct. 1.

(TNS) — When she was undergoing radiation treatment for cancer, Virginia Beach resident Leah Marshall was calling the Virginia Employment Commission.

She filed for unemployment benefits two days after becoming unemployed in August 2020. Six months later, she still had no decision.

Marshall ran out of savings and began filing for bankruptcy.

One month later, she got an award letter and began receiving weekly payments. Marshall, 47, said she used the money to get through that period and pay for health insurance.

About two months later, the benefits were cut off without notice.

She’s not the only one struggling through a system so dysfunctional it now faces legal action.

The VEC faces a court order mandating it to process backlogged unemployment insurance claims by Labor Day and Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order to fix staffing and technology issues by Oct. 1.

Until then, thousands of Virginians still wait for desperately needed aid.

Customer Service Unreachable

Nancy Niles, a part-time temporary contract worker since 2003 for an educational testing company, applied for unemployment benefits many times.

The 66-year-old Virginia Beach resident said she has always had trouble with the Virginia Employment Commission.
“In normal years, they’re hard to get a hold of,” she said. “Truly, you can wait online a long time trying to get a hold of somebody to talk. But this year, it was impossible.”

She had lost her PIN, or personal identification number, to log into her account, which locked her out and prevented her from creating a new account. Niles said that after 15 calls and four emails to customer service without reaching a live person, she stopped trying. Her husband’s income is enough to support them this year, though she would have used the money to pay the bills for which she’s responsible.

When there are no available representatives, the VEC customer service phone line hangs up on callers.

“If you try to call, it just hangs up on you. I’ve tried calling all different hours of the day and various days of the week, same thing,” Marshall said.

Frank Hirtz of Virginia Beach said that when he calls the VEC Customer Contact Center to find out the status of his unemployment insurance, the service tells him he has an “outstanding issue” but nothing more.

“I have no idea what an ‘outstanding issue’ is for me, and I have no way of contacting anybody to find out what it is,” he said.

As of June 16, the agency has offered 20-minute phone appointments to discuss issues with individual cases.

“Appointments are very limited and are not guaranteed to lead to any resolution or payment of claims,” the website says.

On June 24, the website had no available appointments for the next several years. On June 30, the scheduling tool no longer allowed a person to click through a calendar view for several months and years into the future. Instead, it said appointments can be booked only two weeks in advance. If the calendar is booked, the website said it will not show available appointment times but new slots are released every 20 minutes.

Benefits Cut Off

Several people say their benefits were cut off without receiving notice as to why.

Pat Levy-Lavelle, an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, knows many people are having difficulties getting in touch with the agency. As for cutting off benefits, he said the VEC acknowledged it was a problem that needed to be solved quickly.

He said issues on claims, such as a dispute about how a job ended or an alleged decline of a job offer, would cause the VEC to suddenly cut off benefits — but that switches the presumption of the law, he said.

“Federal law is pretty clear that if somebody has already started getting benefits and an issue like that comes up, in almost all cases the benefits are supposed to continue until that case is adjudicated,” he said. “And what has been happening instead was that when an issue came up, benefits would be stopped until an issue was adjudicated.”

He said the VEC started programming in December to resolve that problem and prevent more people from facing that situation. But many are still reporting their benefits were cut off.

Levy-Lavelle said that if benefits are cut off after being determined that the person doesn’t qualify, it would be proper to do so.

In Marshall’s case, the cease of payment coincided with the beginning of her approved community college classes.

The commission selected Marshall to complete the Reemployment Services and Eligibility Assessment Program with the purpose of helping her create a reemployment plan, according to the letter she received. She completed the program and began the community college training course that VEC personnel had approved.

She never got notice that her benefits would be halted, but she stopped getting checks. Marshall sent emails to agency personnel who had approved her reemployment plan and to the program representative at the community college, but they referred her to VEC customer service.

The Virginian-Pilot reached out to VEC personnel for clarification and comment on June 23. Marshall received a letter with the same date saying the agency would reinstate her payments, which are now up to date.

The response to The Pilot was that the agency cannot discuss claimants’ information or the details of their claim with a third party.

“The claimant can always reach out to us for information about their specific claim,” said Roger Bushell, Trade Act supervisor in case management with the VEC. “There is a process we use to verify identity and provide the needed assistance as requested.”

‘The Services Are Inoperable’

The identity verification process was another obstacle for Marshall. The VEC mandated her to complete it in order to continue receiving benefits.

Joyce Fogg, communications manager for the VEC, said is new to the commission to verify identity and was implemented to help stop fraud. A May 18 news release from Northam says about 4 percent of all claims are flagged as potentially fraudulent or ineligible.

Marshall said the website asked her to upload a copy of her driver’s license as well as biometrics such as a face scan, which she likened to iPhone Face ID technology. After a week of trying, she said she finally got the website to work.

“They give you things to comply with, but then the services are inoperable,” she said.

Five legal organizations — Legal Aid Justice Center (where Levy-Lavelle works), Legal Aid Works, and the Virginia Poverty Law Center, along with Consumer Litigation Associates PC, and Kelly Guzzo PLC — filed a class-action lawsuit April 15 in response to the VEC’s extreme delays in processing claims. As of May 10, VEC had a backlog of 92,000 unpaid claims.

Shortly after it was filed, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson signed a court order directing the VEC to resolve the backlog of claims in 100 days — a Labor Day deadline. Levy-Lavelle said the processing of the lawsuit did not go far because the judge wanted the issue resolved.

“Our efforts here have been all about trying to get desperately needed aid as quickly as possible to Virginians who are suffering through unemployment in the middle of the economic crisis,” he said.

Fogg said in an email that the state agency has about 1,200 employees and more than 400 contracted employees who work around Virginia. She said 110 adjudicators have been added to the eight there were before the pandemic.

“The VEC is continuously recruiting and training,” she said.

In conversations since the order, Levy-Lavelle said the agency has acknowledged issues such as claims taking a long time to be processed or people receiving benefits, then having them cut off. The legal organizations have been monitoring the agency’s progress.

According to a status report filed with the court Thursday by the legal advocacy organizations, VEC reported reducing the backlog of claims by roughly 50,000, but the legal groups estimate that at least 30,000 new claims have been added to the backlog since May 10.

“I think the agency has made a lot of progress, but obviously there’s still a lot of progress to go for a lot of Virginians,” he said.

Governor Steps In

Northam acknowledged the issues with the Virginia Employment Commission through a May 18 announcement in which he directed the agency to invest $20 million to adjudicate claims more quickly and make technology upgrades.

Fogg said that money will be used to add additional staff and maintain and upgrade systems. She said more than $13 billion has been paid out to claimants and that more than 1.6 million claims have been filed since last March, more than in the past 10 years.

Three-quarters of the money comes from the budget passed by the General Assembly for technology and infrastructure upgrades, and the remaining amount is being reallocated within the VEC’s administrative budget to specifically boost adjudication staffing, according to an email from Alena Yarmosky, a senior communications adviser in Northam’s office.

State Sen. Bill DeSteph, R- Virginia Beach, said those actions are too little, too late.

Since the start of the pandemic, DeSteph’s office has used their contacts at the VEC to help roughly 2,000 people navigate the process, according to their records. He said leadership starts at the top, and the administration should have been paying more attention to the agency.

“He should have done that a year ago,” DeSteph said. “I’m not trying to be critical of the governor but in this case, when you have a leadership issue and when you have a problem, you put your money and resources into it — not at the very end.”

©2021 The Virginian-Pilot. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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