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More demands for changes at VEC; group wants lawmakers to use federal money to fix ongoing issues

Published: Jul. 15, 2021 at 6:55 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 15, 2021 at 7:08 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - A group of Virginians frustrated over unemployment benefit issues is now demanding action from state lawmakers at the upcoming special session for the General Assembly.

Several advocacy groups have teamed up to create the Unemployment Action Coalition of Virginia; the group held a news conference Thursday morning outside the state capitol.

This comes after the newly formed group sent a letter to the Virginia Secretary of Labor, Megan Healy, outlining several changes the group believes need to be implemented. Some of those suggestions deal with how to re-appropriate federal funds to help fix the problems at the VEC.

State lawmakers will gather on Aug. 2 for a special session to discuss what to do with $4.3 billion in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan. The Unemployment Action Coalition of Virginia hopes a good portion will go to fixing unemployment benefit issues.

“Slightly under 100,000 people have claims that still haven’t been processed by the VEC,” said Jamaa Bickley-King, Board Chair for the group New Majority Virginia.

In May, a federal judge ordered the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) to reduce 95% the backlog of 92,000 outstanding claims by Labor Day.

On July 1, Legal Aid Groups said those numbers were down to nearly 40,000. However, the coalition believes it is likely at least 30,000 new claims have been added to the backlog since May, leaving families in a difficult spot.

“How do you tell individuals you just have to wait,” said Erika Holliday, whose benefits abruptly stopped. “Your rent can’t wait, your bills can’t wait, none of this stuff can wait, but we’re just asked to wait, and this leads to other issues.”

Instead, the group wants state lawmakers to use federal money to grant $1,000 to Virginians whose claims are not fully processed within the required 30 days.

“For this special session, we suggest that funds be allocated to pay grants to individuals with outstanding unprocessed applications submitted since April 1, 2020,” the letter said.

A similar mandate was enacted in Maryland earlier this year.

“Unemployment payments are a good thing,” said Delegate Sally Hudson (D – Charlottesville). “Our unemployment insurance system keeps families afloat when crisis hits.”

However, Hudson said many families are sinking.

There is a proposal by the Northam administration to allocate up to $1 billion of the American Rescue Plan funds to Virginia’s Unemployment Fund.

This fund is where the money for unemployment benefits comes from, paid into by employers over the years.

Instead, the group feels that federal money should go to the Virginians stuck in the backlog.

“If we choose to plunk a billion dollars into the trust fund right now, we are missing a generational opportunity to do transformative change for a system that already has a way of being funded by design,” Hudson said.

“The needs of workers cannot be sidelined in the favor of businesses,” Bickley-King added. “Businesses have been fast-tracked and had their funds restored, and resources needed, and we agree with that, but not at the expense of the workers and they shouldn’t be in juxtaposition of them. It should be both moving forward together however possible we can put that together.”

Meanwhile, the group would also like to use federal funds to improve access at the VEC.

In the letter, the group outlines four areas where inaccessibility is apparent:

  1. Lack of access to technology to online services
  2. Literacy and other barrier that may complicate the unemployment process
  3. Lack of transportation and/or mobility to be able to access a VEC office or the regional workforce development sites
  4. Inability of claimants to speak directly to VEC representatives generally and to speak with representative who have the knowledge to resolve claimants’ issues

“If the Virginia Employment Commission got better about inviting benefit recipients into the process of designing the system that they use, we would get clearer instructions, streamlined workflows; all the things that would make it work for the people who actually need it,” Hudson said.

Language barriers are also an issue the group discussed Thursday.

“In April and May of last year our office started to get lots of calls from mono-lingual Korean and Vietnamese-Americans who wanted assistance to apply for unemployment insurance,” said NAKASEC VA Director Sookyung Oh. “The VEC has multi-lingual capacity, but how do you get to that?”

The group would like money to be invested to support additional staff in the unemployment insurance program to process multilingual documents, phone and online applications.

The VEC had no comment regarding these suggestions. The next reports regarding backlog processing are due in September.

Copyright 2021 WWBT. All rights reserved.

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