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PolitiFact VA: Ranking Virginia’s Response to Pandemic Unemployment Claims

man at podium
Gov. Ralph Northam taking questions about COVID-19 vaccinations earlier this year. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Speaker: Gov. Ralph Northam
Statement: "The Virginia Employment Commission is sixth in the nation for getting benefits to eligible people quickly…”
Date: Aug. 18
Setting: Speech

Gov. Ralph Northam has had a consistent reply to criticism that the Virginia Employment Commission has responded poorly to the huge surge of unemployment claims during the coronavirus crisis.

“While the Virginia Employment Commission is sixth in the nation for getting benefits to eligible people quickly, there have been times in the pandemic when VEC’s pace of resolving those difficult claims just hasn’t been acceptable,” Northam said in an Aug. 18 speech to the General Assembly’s money committees.

Sixth in the nation? Let’s take a look.

The numbers

We asked Northam for the source of the ranking and were pointed to data from the U.S. Department of Labor that, in a variety of ways, ranks states’ performances in distributing unemployment benefits.

Northam cites Virginia’s performance in sending first unemployment checks to individuals within three weeks of their applications. When you measure from April 2020 through June 2021, 83% of Virginia applicants got their first checks within 21 days. That ranks sixth. The national average was 64%.

Much of the high ranking comes from Virginia’s strong performance during the first fiscal quarter of Northam’s time frame. Virginia got 89% of the checks out on time from April through June 2020 - fourth best among states. 

The VEC faced peak demand during that quarter, receiving between 30,000 and 150,000 new unemployment claims each week. 

Virginia’s performance in getting checks out on time has declined in all but one fiscal quarter since, even though the number of new claims has been much lower. In April through June 2021, the latest quarter for which statistics are fully compiled, the VEC paid 57% of its new claims on time, ranking 38th. The state received less than 8,500 new claims a week for most of that period.

VEC’s failures

Widespread criticism of VEC focuses on another performance measure: Virginia is last in the nation in resolving cases when there is doubt about whether an applicant is eligible for unemployment pay. As a result, many Virginians in financial duress have waited long periods to get benefits they’re entitled to.

According to Labor Department data, Virginia resolved only 5% of such cases within three weeks from April 2020 through June 2021. The national average was 48%. Virginia ranked last in four of the five fiscal quarters during the span, and 49th in the other.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission reported in July that the VEC responds to “only to a small portion” of phone calls and is hampered by outdated computers and employee turnover.

The VEC, seeking to resolve a class lawsuit, says it has cut its number of disputed unemployment claims from 92,128 in May to 860 in August - a 98% drop.

The agency says it has hired 300 people since spring to handle public inquiries. At Northam’s request, the General Assembly in August appropriated $73.6 million to improve technology and call center capacity at the agency, and help it retain its staff.

These important problems, however, are not the focus of our fact check.

Our ruling

Northam said the embattled VEC “is sixth in the nation for getting benefits to eligible people quickly…” while acknowledging significant failures at times.

U.S. Labor Department data show from April 2020 through June 2021, 83% of Virginia applicants got their first checks within 21 days. That ranks sixth and includes a crucial period in spring 2020 when unemployment claims skyrocketed because of the coronavirus crisis.

Breaking up the statistics, however, shows Virginia’s performance has declined as the number of unemployment claims dropped. In April through June 2021 - the latest financial quarter for which complete statistics are available - 57% of Virginians received their first checks within three weeks. That ranked 38th in the nation.

So, there’s a little bit of cherry picking in Northam’s statement that Virginia was ranked sixth, and we rate it Mostly True.

 

Sources

Gov. Ralph Northam, Speech to the General Assembly’s money committees, Aug. 18, 2021

Email from Megan Weeks, Northam special assistant for communications, Aug. 26, 2021.

Email from Alena Yarmosky, Northam’s press secretary, Sept. 2, 2021.

U.S. Department of Labor, State Rankings of Core Measures, accessed Sept. 1, 2021

Department of Labor, Glossary of Unemployment Insurance Terms,” accessed Sept. 2, 2021

Virginia Employment Commission, Unemployment Weekly Claims, June 26 and Aug. 21, 2021 

 Virginia’s Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims for the Week Ending August 21, 2021

The Washington Post, “As more cases pile up for Virginia’s beleaguered unemployment system, so do frustrations,” July 24, 2021

Richmond Times-Dispatch,  “Virginia Employment Commission seeks dismissal of lawsuit, citing resolution of 98% of disputed unemployment claims,” Aug. 11, 2021

Richmond Times-Dispatch, “'Only a small portion of calls are being responded to': JLARC pushes VEC for solutions as problems persist,” July 6,2021