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Update: Northam Issues Executive Action to Speed Up Unemployment Claims

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File Photo: The Virginia Employment Commission office in downtown Richmond in 2019. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Editor’s Note: Shortly after this story was published, Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive action intended to speed up unemployment claims. We have added a paragraph explaining the order.

A representative with the Virginia Employment Commission fielded questions from lawmakers Tuesday morning who said they’ve received a barrage of calls from constituents who haven’t gotten their unemployment benefits throughout the pandemic.  

“I thought I was the only member that was receiving dozens of calls per day, regarding their difficulty in getting through to the VEC,” said Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth). “I feel vindicated actually to hear that others are having the same kinds of problems.”

Many Virginians told VPM they’ve struggled to reach representatives at the VEC, and have spent hours on hold and months waiting for payments. 

“I’m stressing about not having any income; but I’m also upset that I cannot get in touch with anyone,” said Wendy Refrano, who contacted VPM by email. “I was asked to send in a copy of my [Social Security] card, driver’s license, W-2s and the name and address of my bank. Yes I need to be paid, but I need to know if my information has been received. That information is my life.”

Megan Healy, the state’s chief workforce advisor, said the call center staff may, unfortunately, not be able to answer many of the questions that people are asking. 

“Specifically, ‘Where am I in the adjudication process?’ I get questions,” Healy said. “‘What did my employer say about me?’ ‘Why did I lose my benefits?’ That is something they cannot tell you, which is very frustrating. And I get that.” 

She said the VEC is opening offices in the coming months where individuals can schedule appointments to talk to someone about their case.  

“So someone can actually go to our centers, and talk to someone face to face,” she said. 

VEC has blamed much of the delays on a shortage of claims adjudicators as well as an antiquated benefits system. Virginians have largely been following up on their cases via mail and through overwhelmed call centers. The commission is slated for a technological overhaul this summer -- one that was supposed to take place last year. 

A group has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against VEC, alleging the state has violated their constitutional rights. The parties are now in the process of court-ordered mediation to fix the problems. The lawsuit cited federal data that shows Virginia is the slowest state in the country at processing issues on unemployment claims. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive order directing VEC to spend $20 million to hire more staffers for faster response times.The governor laid out five immediate steps for the commission to take, including nearly doubling the number of disputed claims reviewed weekly, collaborating with Virginia’s congressional delegation to address federal funding disparities and modernizing the benefits system.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the state’s watchdog agency, is reviewing how the Employment Commission has processed unemployment insurance claims. It’s expected to provide a report in November.