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Unemployment Rules Leave Some Workers In Limbo

Closed sign on door of Richmond business
As businesses reopen, workers who've been collecting unemployment insurance are generally required to return to their old jobs or give up their benefits. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Editor's note: This has been updated to remove inaccurate information provided by the governor's office. Virginia Chief Workforce Development Advisor Megan Healy told VPM that workers who feel unsafe returning to work could petition the Virginia Employment Commission to keep receiving benefits while they wait for their appeal to be heard. VEC contacted VPM after this story was published to clarify that all workers will in fact lose benefits while they wait for their hearing to come up.

As Virginia businesses re-open, workers who have been collecting unemployment benefits are being called back in to their jobs.

Advocates say that can leave workers who are worried about their safety in a bind: either return to work and risk their safety, or lose unemployment benefits.

State officials say workers can appeal their case and keep their benefits if they present “good cause,” like a doctor’s note saying the employee is at risk for contracting COVID-19. Workers who will have childcare issues can also make their case through an appeal.

But they'll have to wait in line. The Virginia Employment Commission has a backlog of roughly 80,000 hearings -- a daunting task for an agency that fielded closer to 60,000 all of last year. 

Del. Christ Hurst (D-Montgomery) said he’s still hearing from workers frustrated with the labyrinthine system. He questioned the process in a House Appropriations meeting on Monday.

“Their physicians are telling them that going back to work would compromise their health and not be safe,” Hurst said in a follow-up interview. “And so they’re left in this terrible position of either trusting their doctor, who is looking out for their best health interests, or going back to work.”

Some workers and lawmakers still report problems accessing VEC’s phone system and online help despite the addition of two new third party call centers to deal with the influx. Frustrated workers have sometimes turned to state lawmakers for help, including Del. Rob Bloxom (R-Accomack)

“One girl called me last Friday [and] says she’s calling you every twenty minutes just trying to get through,” Bloxom told VEC commissioner Ellen Marie Hess at Monday’s meeting.

VEC staff acknowledge their systems have been overwhelmed during the pandemic. VEC spokesperson Joyce Fogg said the commission has asked retired officials to return to their posts to adjudicate cases and asked others to switch roles to handle the continued influx. They’re also adding a new team to make more headway through customer support tickets.

Fogg said the system was complex. But she said the commission’s hands were tied since the rules were made at the federal level by the Department of Labor.

“We’re just enforcing the rules, we’re not making them,” Fogg said.