The Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) is facing criticism and a lawsuit over delays while processing unemployment claims flagged as potentially ineligible. On Tuesday, in court-ordered mediation, the parties in the lawsuit came to an agreement. The same day, Governor Ralph Northam announced Executive Directive 16, requiring the VEC to add 300 new adjudication officers and make technology upgrades.
Northam’s directive requires the VEC to increase claims adjudications processed per week from 5,700 to 20,000 by July 31, to be accomplished in part by finalizing the contract for the new officers. It also requires continued expansion of the customer contact center, modernizing the VEC’s 41-year-old benefits system, and working with the congressional delegation to improve funding.
The Legal Aid Justice Center and several other organizations filed the class-action lawsuit against the VEC, which led to the court-ordered mediation.
LAJC spokesman Jeff Jones said, “The Governor’s announcement today appears to have been released right at the conclusion of this afternoon’s mediation. The parties have come to an agreement, and we expect Judge Hudson to enter an enforceable order later this week. The Governor’s announced improvements reflect the details of the Settlement.”
Additional terms of the mediation also require the VEC to share data with the plaintiffs’ team to monitor progress and require most of the cases currently waiting for adjudication to be resolved by Labor Day.
“Virginia is a national leader in getting unemployment benefits to eligible individuals, but it’s clear that complex cases must be resolved more quickly,” Northam said in a Tuesday press release. “That’s why I’m directing the Virginia Employment Commission invest $20 million to significantly speed up its adjudication process and immediately implement long overdue technology upgrades. This action will address many of the issues that have caused delays and ensure that we continue to deliver relief to Virginians who need it.”
“As Virginia’s chief workforce official, I am always thinking about the Virginians behind the unemployment numbers,” said Chief Workforce Development Advisor Megan Healy. “As we move into the next phase of our recovery, the Governor’s actions will create additional capacity for processing the historic number of claims with indeterminate eligibility.”
The press release notes that most of Virginia’s unemployment claims are processed within the required 21 days, and that most individuals who are flagged for adjudication are eventually found to be ineligible.
Healy also met virtually with the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee on Tuesday morning, where she emphasized that Virginia processes 85.5 percent of its unemployment claims within the 21 days and mentioned the expansion of the new adjudication officers. She said that only three percent of people haven’t received their benefits. Most unresolved disputed claims go to payment after 21 days, and only cases where the applicant self-identifies as ineligible are not paid if they are unresolved after three weeks.
But multiple senators on the call said that their offices were receiving many communications expressing frustration over difficulty trying to contact the VEC for updates.
Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said his constituents faced long hold times when trying to call the VEC, and that some people lost their homes because they couldn’t get their benefits.
“I still hear stories that people get a call or communication or an email from the VEC and then they call back and there’s an incredibly long wait time on the general number,” he said.
Committee Chair Senator Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) said she received dozens of from constituents. “I’ve called over 350 times and cannot reach a human. This is deplorable. Please help, I need this money to live,” one email said.
“I thought I was the only member receiving dozens of calls per day,” Senator Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) said. “These calls are coming in repeatedly, every single day that we’re in office.”
Several other senators said they had similar experiences.
Healy said the call center is currently receiving 100,000 calls a week, and that they’re working to increase call center capacity. Fully-training the new adjudication officers will take 18 months. But Healy told the legislators that training time could be reduced to one or two weeks by focusing training on one isolated issue, for example someone who quit their job, since most of those people will be ineligible and can quickly be processed.
“You’ve got probably the toughest job in government right now,” Howell told Healy. “Thank you so much.”