RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-A class action lawsuit claims Virginia is the slowest state in the country when it comes to processing issues on unemployment claims, citing federal data.
The lawsuit filed by several legal aid groups on Thursday morning seeks to provide relief to claimants and force reform at the Virginia Employment Commission. It says the agency is violating state and federal laws requiring it to respond promptly.
The complaint says, for tens of thousands of Virginians, the unemployment benefits system “has failed completely.”
It details the experiences of five plaintiffs who represent commonly reported problems during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some say their unemployment payments were cut off abruptly without an explanation or a hearing, including Lenita Gibson.
“After getting cut off benefits, I became homeless for roughly four months. I have no income now, other than food stamps.I have a roof over my head again, for now, only through temporary assistance from rent relief programs,” Gibson said in a press release. “The financial loss has been tremendous, and emotionally you are just a wreck. It’s been horrible.”
Others are still waiting on an initial determination months after filing for assistance.
Mother of three Ashley Cox, who is also a named plaintiff, said she submitted her unemployment application in November of 2020 but she’s still in the dark.
Cox said her application requires further evaluation because she technically resigned from her job but she never expected it would take this long to resolve, especially since she said her former employer isn’t contesting the claim.
“It’s highly unacceptable. There shouldn’t be any reason why people are waiting this long just to find out if they are approved or denied,” Cox said.
Meanwhile, Cox is among the many struggling to afford basic needs. For example, unable to pay for her internet bill without benefits, she has had to drive her kids into town to get a signal for virtual school.
“We have had our water shut off. We have had our lights shut off,” Cox said. “If it wasn’t for food stamps right now I have no idea how I would be making sure my children were fed.”
While many states are facing similar challenges due to the influx of claims during the pandemic, Legal Aid Works Managing Attorney Daniel Turczan told 8News that the VEC has made less progress in comparison.
“There are definitely other states that are taking steps that we are not taking,” Turczan said. “Quite frankly, the steps that it has taken or claims to have taken are wholly inadequate.”
“We have been trying to work with the VEC for months, and we would greatly prefer to work with them rather than to sue,” Legal Aid Justice Center Attorney Pat Levy-Lavelle echoed in a statement. “But our suggestions have been rebuffed. And even when the VEC conceded that we were correct –as it did with the treatment of the continued claims group –it failed to implement the changes that it conceded were required. Virginians deserve better than being absolutely last in the country.”
For the fourth calendar quarter of 2020, the U.S.Department of Labor ranked Virginia last of all states and territories in its ability to issue non-monetary determinations within 21 days, with only 4.1 percent of cases decided in a timely manner. The lawsuit says Virginia was ranked 52nd (of 53) for the second and third quarters of 2020.
The VEC declined to comment on the lawsuit on Thursday.
The Legal Aid Justice Center recently launched an online call to action to pressure Gov. Ralph Northam’s Administration to commit more resources to the VEC.
Northam’s Administration didn’t agree to an interview but Spokesperson Alena Yarmosky responded in a statement.
While we can’t comment on pending litigation, Governor Northam is committed to getting Virginians the benefits they deserve. Over the past year, VEC has paid out $13 billion in benefits to 1.3 million people—more people than over the last 10 years combined. It’s important to remember that not everyone who applies for benefits will be eligible, and appeals require a longer process. But despite a record-breaking influx of claims, we are proud that Virginia is the 6th fastest state in getting benefits into the hands of eligible workers (according to the US Dept. of Labor). Like many states, we continue to work day and night to improve the system.Gov. Ralph Northam’s Spokesperson Alena Yarmosky