Virginia has paid out $328M in unemployment benefits, but some workers are still waiting for checks

Virginia has paid out $328M in unemployment benefits, but some workers are still waiting for checks
Perly's, a restaurant in Downtown Richmond, closed temporarily amid new restrictions on restaurants aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Paul Bombardier has been puzzling over his application for unemployment benefits for a week now.

The IT contractor in Prince William County works with small businesses, nearly all of whom have closed up shop amid the pandemic, leaving him with little work and a dramatically reduced income.

Under the CARES Act passed by Congress last month, he and other self-employed and gig workers are newly eligible for Virginia’s unemployment insurance program, which was previously restricted to workers at traditional employers.

But the application process — clunky in the best of times — still hasn’t caught up to the new rules, official guidance is hard to find and phone lines at the state employment commission are swamped. That’s left applicants like Bombardier with lots of questions and little in the way of answers.

“I’m still trying to work through it on my own, using whatever reputable info I can find online or from peers who are going through the process,” he said. “But because of variations between states, there aren’t many concrete answers.”

$380 million in relief paid out

As in most states, Virginia’s unemployment system wasn’t built for the historic surge of applications that followed wide-spread business closures. The program, which had been processing closer to 2,000 applications a week before the pandemic, has fielded an unprecedented 410,000 claims since March 15. That’s nearly as many as the state field in the last three years combined.

But Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration says the benefits system — which officials acknowledge is outdated and difficult to navigate — is holding up remarkably well, especially compared to other states that have contended with wholesale outages.

The Virginia Employment Commission reported this week that 218,000 people, more than half of applicants who applied since March 15, are already receiving benefits. And Megan Healy, Northam’s chief workforce adviser, said they’ve so far cut $328 million in checks to those workers.

She said the vast majority of applicants — about 80 percent — are receiving their first benefits checks or direct deposits within a week of applying and many applicants confirmed that they got their first payment within that timeframe.

The people benefiting from those quick turnaround times are applicants who meet the traditional criteria for benefits, main workers who were laid off or had their hours cut by employers who were paying payroll taxes. Because the state has data on their employment, their applications can be automatically checked and processed, she said.

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