Scathing audit faults poor management for Virginia’s unemployment insurance failures
Virginia’s failure to deliver unemployment benefits in a timely manner left thousands of jobless Virginians waiting months for aid during the pandemic.
Now, a scathing audit says much of the blame lies with poor management coupled with limited oversight by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration.
“It’s clear that additional oversight and assistance is needed,” Lauren Axselle, a legislative analyst with the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission, told lawmakers Monday, recommending the legislature expand its role rather than rely on the executive branch and the U.S. Department of Labor.
Throughout the pandemic, the Virginia Employment Commission, which administers the program, and Northam’s administration, which oversees the agency and appoints its leadership, downplayed widespread problems or blamed external factors outside their control.
Instead, the report — based on extensive interviews with experts, agency staff and employees — describes a perfect storm of more than a decade of poor management colliding with an unprecedented pandemic.
A massive IT upgrade was eight years behind schedule. The agency was understaffed to meet even pre-pandemic workloads. The staff the agency did have was less effective because many were dedicated to tasks that modern computers long ago made obsolete, like mailing forms and letters and manual data entry.
“We are so heavily reliant on paper … We have paper in every nook and cranny,” the report quotes one unnamed employee saying.
That led state officials overseeing the program to conclude that they were being underfunded by the federal government at the same time as they were receiving more per-claim than most other states.
And in either case, the report says, management and administration officials took no serious steps to increase staffing until more than a year into the pandemic. And the report says Northam’s administration blocked some early steps explored by the agency.
Among other things, the report says Northam’s cabinet did not grant an early request to set aside state hiring requirements to fill positions faster. That meant, for example, that part-time employees the agency wanted to move quickly into full-time roles had to first reapply for the position. An effort to bring in state employees from other agencies to help was limited to a voluntary request that drew no takers, the report says.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.
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