RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-Upgrades to Virginia’s outdated unemployment system are being delayed until early November, about one month after the long-anticipated Oct. 1 launch date.
That’s also pushing back a temporary shut down of the current system that was expected to begin this week in preparation for the transition. Now, the planned halt is expected to start in late October and last for several days.
As of Tuesday evening, the Virginia Employment Commission had yet to release a concrete timeline for the start of the modernized system or for the shut down.
“We are still assessing potential options, but our primary focus is to take a few more weeks to allow for more time on testing and training to ensure the best possible outcome,” said VEC Spokesperson Joyce Fogg in an email on Tuesday.
During the crossover period, customers will not be able to access inquiries on the telephone system nor file initial, additional, reopened or weekly claims. Appeals hearings and preparations for those hearings will continue without interruption, according to the VEC.
The system overhaul has been underway for 12 years and it’s still unfinished 8 years after the original target date for completion.
The project was delayed further at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, during which a tenfold increase in unemployment claims exposed long-standing flaws in the system.
The new system will add various online features to a self-service portal, allowing claimants to avoid long wait times at VEC call centers.
Secretary of Labor Megan Healy said the decision to push back the launch date was made last Friday.
“The statewide accounting system for all the state agencies is going live Oct. 1 and the VEC is also in the middle of their annual APA audit. A lot is going on,” Healy said in a text on Tuesday.
The set back is the latest frustration for claimants like William Bernstein. He said he just recently received more than $2,000 in back pay after initially filing for benefits at the end of July 2021. He said his claim was stalled in the system due to a point of confusion with his former employer but–before the issue was resolved–he struggled to reach the VEC by phone for weeks.
“They have had all of this time to update the system and honestly to get down to it, it shows leadership doesn’t really care much about those who are unemployed,” Bernstein said. “Leadership needs to get on the ball and get their priorities straight.”
The delay comes after a presentation from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to members of the General Assembly last week raised several concerns about the modernization effort and the state’s ability to stick with its Oct. 1 timeline.
“Several major project risks have not been fully mitigated and continue to threaten VEC’s UI modernization project, even though the new system launch is fast approaching,” said JLARC Project Lead Lauren Axselle.
Axselle said the VEC was experiencing difficulties transferring customer data accurately. She also noted that staff training for modernization, which started on Sept. 13, may have started too late.
Another finding was that the agency hasn’t conducted sufficient usability testing with claimants and employers to identify possible areas of confusion as recommended by experts. Instead, Axselle said the VEC had only conducted this testing with agency staff.
Asked if the VEC had since expanded user testing, Fogg said, “I don’t know that we’ve done any. I know they have discussed it.”
Fogg couldn’t say if the issues with data transferring have been resolved.
Del. Sally Hudson (D-Charlottesville) has been raising the alarm about some of these issues since last year. She said this may have been addressed by a budget proposal she introduced directing Virginia to bring in leading developers in user testing. That amendment was rejected.
In an interview on Tuesday, Hudson wasn’t surprised by the delay.
“At this point the state has been ignoring this guidance for more than a year,” Hudson said. “User testing is not an afterthought. You can’t tack it on to the last month of a project. You build good software right along with the people who will use it from the start. So I think we should all be concerned about how realistic the prognosis for the delay is from here.”
8News asked Gov. Ralph Northam about the delay during his visit to the State Fair of Virginia on Tuesday.
“We have postponed that because we want to get it right. We have been working on this for a while,” Northam said. “I won’t say it’s going to be perfect but it will be much better than it has been.”
Northam didn’t directly respond when asked if staff training and user testing should’ve started sooner.
“The system was literally inundated with more than 1.7 million Virginians and we’re doing everything that we can,” Northam said.