RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – The Virginia General Assembly’s watchdog agency will provide updates on its ongoing study into the state’s Employment Commission to ensure lawmakers don’t have to wait for a final report to be aware of any pressing issues. 

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission has been tasked with reviewing how the Virginia Employment Commission has processed unemployment insurance claims, including its response during the pandemic and IT program, with a report expected on Nov. 15. 

Legislative auditors presented JLARC’s 2021 work plan during its first meeting of the year on Monday, giving details and answering questions on the studies the watchdog agency will be working on this year. 

JLARC’s associate director, Tracey Smith, laid out how the VEC study would move forward and shared the problems that claimants have reported since the pandemic struck last year. Smith told members, as of March 31, VEC has only processed 2.4% of claims that require additional review within 21 days, a figure that makes Virginia last in the nation in that metric, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Sen. Jeremy McPike (D-Woodbridge), one of the lawmakers on JLARC, called the numbers “fairly stark” and asked whether the study could be shared earlier in order for legislators on the watchdog panel to identify and possibly address problems within VEC.

“This is, you know when folks need government and they need assistance and they’re not giving it,” McPike said Monday, “it’s a fundamental failure.”

The chairman of the JLARC, Sen. Kenneth Plum (D-Fairfax), said he believes VEC will make changes once JLARC continues to move forward. “As is the case often times with our studies, is that improvements occur as we uncover need and I think you’re already seeing some beginnings at VEC to try to get on top of this thing,” Plum told McPike.

McPike then asked if “interim updates” would be shared with the commission before November’s final report presentation. Plum said those updates would take place but no other details were discussed during Monday’s meeting.

The JLARC study will examine the pandemic’s impact on VEC, the effectiveness of its response, how the employment commission administered the state’s unemployment insurance program. It will also look into how VEC will modernize its IT program, a 12-year effort that only just resumed in April, according to Smith.

The VEC decided to put the project on hold to focus its attention on the unprecedented number of claims and calls from those seeking unemployment benefits during the pandemic. Smith said relying on the existing mainframe prevented some claimants from submitting documents online and tracking their claim status.

JLARC members acknowledged the VEC has faced unprecedented challenges during the pandemic, with Smith reiterating that the staggering number of claims eventually depleted the unemployment insurance trust fund. There were 1.4 million unemployment benefit claims last year in Virginia, compared with only 136,000 in 2019, Smith said Monday.

While noting the pressure the VEC has been under, Smith told JLARC members the claims have dipped by 57% since March “but performance has lagged.” She highlighted the VEC’s backlog, saying Monday that as of March 31 the VEC still needed information from employers for 612,500 claims and had yet to rule on 137,000 claims.

Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), a Republican contender for governor, raised issues he’s heard from constituents about the VEC’s phone line. “Our frustration, and I think it’s across the board nonpartisan, is that we get people that will tell us they will call for literally a year and just never get a call back,” Cox told Smith before asking if there was a way to measure such occurrences.

VEC implemented a call back feature, but Smith said it has not been consistently available. Cox was assured the team working on the report is tracking dropped calls, callbacks and wait times for claimants.

A VEC spokesperson did not respond to 8News’ request for an interview by the time of publication.