By Martin Wegbreit
Americans help each other during a crisis. Whether it’s a fire, a flood or a tornado, the government is there to help anyone in need. So why is unemployment compensation an exception?
On November 8, 2021, the Joint Commission on Audit and Legislative Review of the General Assembly released what was called a “scathing report” on the failure of the Virginia Jobs Commission to pay a timely unemployment benefit. Decades of mismanagement have led to this inevitable result.
The JLARC has documented widespread shortcomings of the VEC. JLARC reported that despite nearly 566,000 claims from mid-March to the end of April 2020 – four years in just six weeks – the VEC made no serious effort to increase staff for over a year.
During the pandemic, the VEC answered 4% to 12% of calls. As in the past, CVE relies heavily on paper-based processes that are slow and time-consuming. Notices to applicants remain largely unchanged, with outdated references such as contacting local VEC offices that remain closed.
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Nearly 440,000 claims still require a decision, of which 80,000 are waiting an average of nine months for a first level appeal. Nearly 143,000 cases have an unresolved “claim fraud issue.” In many cases, this means a scammer is using the identity of a legitimate claimant to claim benefits.
A new computer system is eight years behind schedule. When it finally launched in mid-November last year with the Virginia Unemployment Insurance system claimant self-service portal, it was more often down than operational.
In the past 21 months of legal aid work, I have witnessed the frustration and desperation of more than 400 unemployed people trying unsuccessfully to get help from this broken system. Their stories are heartbreaking. Here are some examples :
- Benefits stopping after a few weeks without explanation;
- Being prevented from filing the required weekly claims;
- Receive notices of submission of documents before a deadline that has already passed;
- Being turned down due to an alleged lack of connection with work, even after multiple faxes of requested documents showing connection;
- Failing to resolve a “claim fraud issue” even after faxing identity verification several times;
- Not having been informed that a second application was required after the first year of unemployment;
- Receive intimidating overpayment notices, demanding reimbursement of thousands of dollars of benefits requested and received in good faith;
- Not receiving a response to an overpayment waiver request even after 4-5 months; and
- Responding to first level calls and receiving no response even after 6-8 months.
The final exasperation is having no effective way to solve any of these problems. More often than not, calls to the VEC go unanswered. Voicemails receive no return calls. Emails receive no response. And the problem cases go on endlessly unresolved. Even my efforts to contact senior VEC officials yield no results most of the time.
One of my clients recently said it better than anyone: “I just wanted your opinion. Nothing has changed. On the rare days that the VUIS website is working and I can log in, it tells me questionable ID and no way for me to help with the resolution. No suggestions. So, is it just patient, the deputy will get there at any time? I get no explanation as to why my identity was questioned in the first place, nor a solution after submitting (nine) identity forms and patiently waiting for (seven) months. Today I see that there is no contact number to file an official complaint.
Until Virginia receives its fair share of federal funds to administer the program, the General Assembly must provide state funding, which has never been done. The weekly benefit amounts, which have not been increased since July 2008, need to be updated and indexed so that the unemployed can support themselves while they search for a new job. The power to waive overpayments where the claimant is without fault and repayment would reduce money for essentials such as food and shelter should be made permanent and not expire on June 30.
the The JLARC report offers 50 proposals . These include setting performance targets for call centers; develop a detailed plan to resolve all issues related to claims circumvented in 2020 and 2021; and revising documents and online resources to more clearly explain eligibility rules and how to navigate the claims and appeals process.
Helping the unemployed in times of need is not a partisan issue. It does not pit workers against companies. Unemployment compensation helps the unemployed return to work sooner while they complete the required two job searches per week. It keeps our economy going with an infusion of cash that keeps businesses afloat and jobs available. The whole society benefits. But not with the current VEC. Change is necessary. The way forward is clear.
Martin Wegbreit is director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society and a member of the Virginia State Bar’s Standing Committee on Access to Legal Services. Contact him at: [email protected]