A federal lawsuit forces Virginia to own its duty to handle pandemic jobless claims promptly

A federal lawsuit forces Virginia to own its duty to handle pandemic jobless claims promptly
Last September, however, those benefits stopped without explanation. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Amber Dimmerling is scared. She’s angry, too. And she has every right to be.

Left jobless when the pandemic crushed the restaurant industry  14 months ago, the 40-year-old single mother did her best to make ends meet and care for her 12-year-old daughter with the weekly Virginia unemployment insurance benefits she initially received.

Last September, however, those benefits stopped without explanation. She’s had no chance to appeal her case — rich with documentation — to a human arbiter in the eight months since.

Dimmerling is among thousands of Virginians who have lived for months with the daily panic of impending financial doom because of the Virginia Employment Commission’s lagging performance in dealing with contested pandemic unemployment claims within the 21 days as prescribed by federal law.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, for each full quarter since the pandemic began Virginia has ranked at or near the bottom against other states in the percentage of “nonmonetary determinations of claimants” within the required three weeks.

That’s bureaucratic jargon that means people whose unemployment insurance claims have been called into question or have prompted other concerns. For instance, employees who quit without good cause or are fired for misconduct are generally ineligible for benefits. Those separated because of layoffs — particularly in the pandemic — are eligible. Sometimes, employers will object to a former employee’s claim, and specialists known as “deputy adjudicators” decide who’s right.

If that can’t be done in 21 days, it’s a violation of law, said Pat Levy-Lavelle, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. And that’s at the heart of Virginia’s dispute: rather than promptly receiving benefits or an appealable deputy’s determination denying them, they’ve fallen into a black hole where they go months with neither a payment, due process nor an explanation.

For the first quarter of this year, Virginia had adjudicated only 2.4 percent of such non-monetary claims within 21 days, the lowest ratio in the nation. The national average for the quarter was 42.9 percent.

It’s a black eye for a state once lauded for businesslike efficiency and sound management in government. But far more consequential than the commonwealth’s reputation is the wholesale human suffering this failure has occasioned.

“I just don’t think they care because they’re getting a paycheck,” said Demmerling, now a lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the VEC. “Until they see somebody in this circumstance or hear their story, they really don’t care.”

The lawsuit isn’t the only bright light being focused on VEC. The General Assembly’s investigative arm, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, is doing its own inquiry.

READ MORE ON VIRGINIAMERCURY.COM >>>

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

Want NBC12’s top stories in your inbox each morning? Subscribe here.