Lawsuit: ‘Gross failure’ by Virginia Employment Commission in getting unemployment claims decided during pandemic

Updated: May. 17, 2021 at 7:14 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - From not quickly hiring enough staffers, to being listed as the slowest in the nation in resolving claims, the Virginia Employment Commission is now in the middle of court-ordered mediation with the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) and a list of other entities, to fix problems that have plagued during the pandemic, leaving many Virginians with no safety net.

“Some nights I stay up because I’m wondering how I’m going to pay my bills,” said Chesterfield resident Sydney Johnson, who says she’s been waiting for unemployment benefits for five months.

Like Sydney, a staggering 1.5 million Virginians have claims for unemployment since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020 - more than the last decade combined.

However, according to a class-action lawsuit brought on by the Legal Aid Justice Center, Legal Aid Works, the Virginia Poverty Law Center, Kelly Guzzo PLC, and Consumer Litigation Associates P.C., against the VEC, at one point, 90,000 Virginians were still waiting for a decision on their cases.

“I’ve been calling every day from 8:15 a.m. to the time they close at 4:30 p.m.,” said Sydney of trying to get through to the VEC’s bogged-down call center.

The lawsuit cites the VEC’s “gross failure” in getting unemployment payments out in 21 days on claims needing more review, “violating federal and state law. During one period in the pandemic, Virginia ranked last in the country when a VEC deputy was needed to reach out to employers for more info, with only two percent of cases decided in a timely manner.”

Federal pandemic stimulus checks were also held up in many cases since the VEC handles those, as well.

Another problem listed in the lawsuit is people receiving benefits, but then suddenly getting their payments cut off with no communication or appeals hearing. Currently, the swamped VEC call center still receives more than 100,000 calls from distressed Virginians, per week.

“In some cases, they’ve been told to stop calling,” said Pat Levy-Lavelle, an attorney working the case with the Legal Aid Justice Center. Pat Levy-Lavelle said the Virginia Employment Commission has taken too long to hire enough additional staff.

“You see a lot of states doing things like calling up the National Guard... hiring people from other state agencies... or private contracts,” he said. “Other states have taken steps to do a number of things to ramp up their capacity, and we just haven’t seen that in Virginia.”

Levy-Lavelle says the VEC put too many new staffers for the call center, instead of using them as deputies to actually determine claims. The lawsuit also blames the agency for not taking strong enough action to fix its antiquated, 1985 computer system.

The VEC confirms to NBC12 they’ve hired about 450 staff members for its call center since the pandemic began, and 50 more deputies to decide claims. Another 300 deputies are in the process of being hired.

The VEC also added a call-back feature and says it’s taken steps to modernize its computer system and website, hoping to finish a complete IT overhaul that was supposed to right before the pandemic hit.

However, Levy-Lavelle says it hasn’t been enough, and that promises to heed solutions pitched by the LAJC have fallen flat.

“Unfortunately, we’ve encountered an agency that has been willing to talk with us, but doesn’t seem like it’s meaningfully invested in solutions,” said Levy-Lavelle.

The VEC says it ranks sixth in the country getting a historic number of eligible people benefits, whose cases didn’t need further review.

The agency declined to comment on this lawsuit but did speak to NBC12 in March about the harsh criticism over its performance.

“I know there are some people out there who feel that way, but there are a lot of people out there who are very thankful for the work that we’ve done,” said Joyce Fogg, spokesperson for the VEC.

Fogg has also pointed out that many people who apply for unemployment benefits are not actually eligible.

“It’s the ultimate frustration dealing with the VEC,” said Sydney when learning of the lawsuit. “I can honestly say I’m glad that people are taking a stand at this point.”

The VEC and the Legal Aid Justice Center are still working to come up with fixes to all of these problems, per a judge’s order.

The VEC is also under review by the Virginia General Assembly’s watchdog agency, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, and the U.S. Department of Labor.

Copyright 2021 WWBT. All rights reserved.

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