Coalition calls for $1,000 grants for claimants in unemployment backlog

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A coalition of advocates is coming out with a list of demands to improve Virginia’s unemployment system and to help claimants facing long delays for benefits.

The group is calling on the General Assembly to fund $1,000 grants for people whose claims are not fully processed within 30 days of applying.

In a letter to Virginia’s Secretary of Labor Megan Healy, the coalition initially requested monthly payments of $1,000 dollars for individuals with outstanding unprocessed applications submitted on or after April 1, 2020.

In a press conference on Thursday, the group clarified that they’re asking for one-time payments.

By Labor Day, a federal judge ordered the Virginia Employment Commission to “substantially resolve at least 95%” of 92,158 claims that were awaiting adjudication as of May 10. At last check, 33,127 of those claims still hadn’t been processed and that doesn’t include at least 30,000 new claims that have been added to the backlog since, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center.

“How do you tell individuals you’re just going to have to wait? Your rent can’t wait. Your bills can’t wait,” said Erika Holiday, one of the individuals who has been waiting in the queue for months.

The coalition criticized a proposal backed by Gov. Ralph Northam and other Democratic leaders to allocate $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan to replenish the Unemployment Trust Fund. Supporters of the plan say the investment is needed to avoid a massive payroll tax hike on struggling businesses but Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News) disagrees.

“I’m saying there is a better usage of our money and that is giving it to the people who are waiting for theirs,” Price said.

The General Assembly will decide how to spend Virginia’s share of federal COVID-19 relief in a special session set to start Aug. 2.

“We need to prioritize people and not just businesses,” said New Virginia Majority Board Chair Jamaa Bickley-King.

The coalition is also calling on the VEC to improve the accessibility of the system for those without reliable phone and computer resources by allowing the submission of paper forms by mail and email.

Additionally, to improve customer service, the group said additional call center staff and training for that staff is needed.

Advocates are also looking for a large investment to expand and maintain language accessibility resources. For example, the letter calls for a one-time investment of $5 million to create a multilingual online application process and marketing materials, as well as to support current efforts to increase staffing at call centers.

“We know that every month, from the latest data we got from the VEC, that upwards of 140,000 to 150,000 calls go to the VEC call center from speakers of languages other than English,” said NAKASEC VA Director Sookyung Oh. “There is actually no clear instructions on how to access other languages.”

Meanwhile, Del. Sally Hudson (D-Charlottesville) is pushing for the state to make additional investments in modernization as an updated system is expected to go live on October 1, 2021. She proposed a budget amendment last year to create a VEC digital services team that didn’t make the cut.

Hudson said this is critical to ensure the state’s safety net is better equipped for future recessions.

“They experienced this last time and Virginia has had a decade to invest in serious solutions and we didn’t. So I want to make very clear that Virginia is not just going to ride this one out. We are not just going to forget about it,” Hudson said.

The VEC declined to comment on Thursday.

Sec. Healy also declined to do an interview but she sent the following statement:

“Virginia has outperformed other states in distributing unemployment benefits to people who are eligible, but we know that there is still much more to be done. We directed the VEC to speed up the processing of claims in adjudication and are seeing exciting progress, with less than two percent of the decisions left to be made. Virginia, like other states, is also dealing with tens of thousands of fraudulent claims which take additional investigation. I look forward to continuing to work with the groups in this coalition on these and other important issues to ensure that all Virginians receive the benefits that they are eligible for as quickly as possible.”

Virginia Secretary of Labor Megan Healy

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