‘Outdated & Complicated’ – Virginia lawmakers call for unemployment upgrade

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Virginia lawmakers have major concerns about the state’s ability to handle a record number of jobless claims.

Forty-three members of the General Assembly signed a letter to the Virginia Employment Commission calling for an urgent upgrade to a system legislators called ‘a bureaucratic nightmare.’

“Specifically, these problems include inaccessibility of the VEC via phone or online, a lack of initial or follow up communication with claimants, the use of a complicated and outdated online system, and an overall lack of transparency with claimants throughout the process,” the letter to Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess said in part.

Click here to read the full letter.

Many applicants have turned to their legislators for help in desperation. According to a press release on Thursday, members of the General Assembly have referred 10,000 cases to the VEC. Lawmakers said the agency has told them–in most cases– these claims require administrative adjudication, a process that could take up to two months.

“Unfortunately we haven’t been able to make any meaningful headway to try to clear out the tens of thousands of Virginians who are waiting for hearings,” said Del. Chris Hurst (D-Blacksburg). “It just shows you how big the problem is.”

The VEC said 60,000 people are currently waiting for issues with their unemployment applications to be resolved before they can receive their benefits. Since one applicant can have multiple problems, the agency said there are about 79,000 pending issues.

The agency said entering an incorrect social security number or failing to file a weekly certification can land someone in this situation. It can also happen if a claimant refuses employment due to fear of contracting coronavirus or infecting a loved one.

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VEC Communications Manager Joyce Fogg said the agency has hired more employees and redirected staff from other areas to help with adjudications. The agency said there are hundreds of people helping with the early stages to quicken the process for the more than 60 deputies who make the decisions.

Fogg said the agency is starting to see results. By June 22nd, VEC said they were getting through 1,600 issues weekly. By June 29th, that number rose to 5,000 weekly. The VEC said they hoped to be at 10,000 decisions weekly by early August.

“That will help clear out that volume sooner than we had expected,” Fogg said.

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Fogg said the agency has also upgraded its phone system twice since March, taking on third party call centers to field complaints and questions.

Still, Del. Hurst said many of his constituents aren’t able to figure out where they are in the queue and when they might receive a payment. He said they can’t get ahold of anyone from VEC on the phone and their website doesn’t have the capability to provide status updates.

“What we need is to make sure that that website is a portal to receive information in modern ways,” Hurst said.

The VEC said the benefits process is due for a modernization. The agency said this was supposed to happen by June but it was put on the back-burner because of the pandemic.

Lawmakers acknowledged in their letter that understaffing and a budget based on federal funding left the VEC ‘at a difficult starting point.’ Legislators called for collaboration to improve the system.

“There still are chronic problems with the way things are going that we feel are unacceptable and that VEC may not be able to change on their own even if they would like to,” Hurst said. “If that is the case, then we need to continue to move this conversation forward.”

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Lawmakers are calling for JLARC, the state’s non-partisan commission, to prioritize a study of VEC’s operations and performance to inform future policy decisions. The letter said this was authorized in 2017 but it has taken a backseat to other ‘pressing studies.’

The VEC responded to the letter from lawmakers late Thursday night after earlier declining the request pending an official review. Click here to read the full response.

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