Class-action lawsuit filed against VEC due to ‘failures in unemployment insurance system’

Updated: Apr. 15, 2021 at 6:15 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) for “common failures” regarding its unemployment insurance system.

This comes more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, which left hundreds of thousands of Virginians unemployed.

Several legal groups including the Legal Aid Justice Center, Legal Aid Works and the Virginia Poverty Law Center along with Consumer Litigation Associates, PC, and Kelly Guzzo, PLC filed the suit against VEC Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess on behalf of five plaintiffs.

“When you lose your income, it’s the scariest thing on the planet,” said Ashley Cox, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Many people have praised Cox and the four other women for taking this action. However, Legal Aid Works attorney Daniel Turczan said filing the lawsuit was a last resort after trying to work with the VEC directly.

“Unfortunately, all our efforts apparently failed,” he said. “We were getting the runaround from the VEC for a few months; nothing essentially changed, so we felt it was finally necessary to file this suit.”

According to a news release by the Legal Aid Justice Center, the civil lawsuit filed in federal court on Thursday challenges ‘two common VEC failures’:

  • Process and adjudication of applications (Initial claims)
  • Abruptly cut-off benefits that the VEC initially approved (Continued Claims)

The group believes these measures violate federal and state unemployment laws, as well as the “due process guarantees of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

“From November until just yesterday, I had no correspondence from the VEC, other than the monetary determination that just lets you know what amount you could be eligible for, and my PIN so I could claim my weeks,” Cox said.

For five months Cox filed claims every week but never received any money.

The lawsuit states Cox was injured in July 2020 on the job and eventually asked by her employer to resign in November.

“…in which case DBi Services would pay the medical bills related to the burn she received while working – or being fired. She chose to resign,” the lawsuit reads.

Cox applied for unemployment benefits two days later but has never been able to get in touch with anyone about the reported outstanding issue on her claim, until April 14.

That is when she received a text message saying she was disqualified for certain benefits.

“This is the single most constant fight or flight feeling that I’ve ever had in my existence,” Cox said. “That’s what it is, you’re so proactive and trying to make everything okay and it’s just - you’re swimming and getting nowhere.”

Four other women named in the lawsuit share similar experiences. One woman stated she was homeless for nearly four months after her benefits stopped coming in.

“She currently has housing, but only as a result of temporary assistance through rent relief programs,” the lawsuit said. “She has relied on food stamps and food banks to have something to eat, and she has no income other than food stamps.”

“I believe this suit will provide maybe some movement with the VEC to realize that we’re serious now,” Turczan said. “We’re going to put your feet to the fire and we’re going to attempt to get some relief from the court system.”

Attorney said the group is not looking for a “large lump-sum” in relief, rather, they hope the Court will uphold the evidence presented and demand the VEC do its job.

However, they are also seeking relief in “the adjudication and payment of unemployment benefits, a prohibition against further violations of law and for such declaratory and injunctive relief as may be appropriate; for attorneys’ fees and costs; and for such other relief the Court does determine just and appropriate.”

A spokeswoman for the VEC said it was unable to comment about any litigation.

However, the Legal Aid Justice Center said it is important to note the lawsuit does not claim that everyone who files a claim for unemployment benefits with the VEC is entitled to the money.

“But every Virginian who files a claim for benefits is entitled - by law - to a prompt response from the VEC,” a press release stated. “And everyone who has begun to receive benefits is entitled - by law - to continue receiving benefits until a VEC deputy decides otherwise.”

“We have been trying to work with the VEC for months, and we would greatly prefer to work with them rather than to sue,” said Pat Levy-Lavelle, Attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center. “But our suggestions have been rebuffed. And even when the VEC conceded that we were correct – as it did with the treatment of the continued claims group – it failed to implement the changes that it conceded were required. Virginians deserve better than being absolutely last in the country.”

NBC12 reached out to the Governor’s Office for comment on the matter. A spokeswoman released the following statement:

“While we can’t comment on pending litigation, Governor Northam is committed to getting Virginians the benefits they deserve,” she said. “Over the past year, VEC has paid out $13 billion in benefits to 1.3 million people - more people than over the last 10 years combined. It’s important to remember that not everyone who applies for benefits will be eligible, and appeals require a longer process. But despite a record-breaking influx of claims, we are proud that Virginia is the 6th fastest state in getting benefits into the hands of eligible workers (according to the US Dept. of Labor). Like many states, we continue to work day and night to improve the system.”

The U.S. Department of Labor document provided by the Governor’s Office shows Virginia is sixth in the nation, but specifically for dispersing “all first payments” on 14/21 day timeliness. The document does not show the rate for dispersing benefits for continued claims filed.

Meanwhile, Senator Mark Warner recently penned a letter to Northam following an influx of messages and calls from Virginians dealing with a lack of response from the VEC.

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