A lawsuit was recently filed against the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) over complaints about the state’s unemployment system.
The Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) is in hot water after being accused of being the slowest state in the nation to resolve unemployment claims and for failing to hire enough staffers. The problems with the commission are so severe that it is now in the middle of court-ordered mediation with the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) to “fix problems that have plagued during the pandemic, leaving many Virginians with no safety net.”
When commenting on the state of the state’s unemployment system during the pandemic, Chesterfield resident Sydney Johnson said, “Some nights I stay up because I’m wondering how I’m going to pay my bills.” She has been waiting for five months for her unemployment benefits to kick in, and she’s not alone. So far, a whopping 1.5 million people in Virginia have filed unemployment claims since March 2020 when much of the country was forced to shut down for COVID-19. At one point, 90,000 Virginians “were still waiting for a decision on their cases,” according to a class-action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center against the VEC.
Sydney said one of the hardest parts of the process is just getting ahold of someone. “I’ve been calling every day from 8:15 a.m. to the time they close at 4:30 p.m.,” she said.
As part of the lawsuit, LAJC cites the “VEC’s gross failure in getting unemployment payments out in 21 days on claims needing more review, violating federal and state law.” The suit states, “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.”
To make matters worse, stimulus checks from the federal government were also held up for many people because VEC was in charge of those, too.
The suit also notes that people who have been receiving payments have suddenly been cut off, “with no communication or appeals hearing.” At the moment, the VEC call center is still receiving more than 100,000 calls per week from frustrated and desperate Virginians. Pat Levy-Lavelle, an attorney working the case with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said, “In some cases, they’ve been told to stop calling.” Levy-Lavelle added that “the Virginia Employment Commission has taken too long to hire enough additional staff,” and said:
“You see a lot of states doing things like calling up the National Guard… hiring people from other state agencies…or private contracts…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.”
In addition to these allegations, the suit also claims the agency has not taken “strong enough action to fix its antiquated, 1985 computer system.”
In response to the lawsuit, representatives with VEC claim the agency has “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.” On top of that, the agency has 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.”
Those updates aren’t happening fast enough for struggling Virginians, and Levy-Lavelle said “promises to heed solutions pitched by the LAJC have fallen flat.” He added, “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.”
When commenting on the suit, Joyce Fogg, a spokesperson for the VEC said, “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.”