RICHMOND, Va. -- For the last 16 years, Pat Levy-Lavelle at the Legal Aid Justice Center has represented clients against the Virginia Employment Commission.
Once again, he has stood in front of a Richmond federal judge in a class-action lawsuit against the VEC over stopped or delayed unemployment benefits.
“We’ve started hearing from claimants almost immediately as the pandemic was starting about filing claims and not getting information and waiting,” Levy-Lavelle told CBS 6.
About 19 months since the pandemic began, the attorney agreed with recent findings from the General Assembly’s watchdog agency, Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), regarding the VEC.
During a Monday presentation, JLARC Project Leader Lauren Axselle told lawmakers that the agency needed more oversight and assistance. One of the chief concerns noted was communication.
“VEC’s communications to customers and their own staff has caused significant frustration and confusion,” Axselle explained.
Levy-Lavelle said he’s heard from clients that correspondences are full of jargon that the typical Virginian doesn’t understand.
“A lot of information sent to claimants is written in language lawyers understand or people who have a lot of experience with the Virginia Employment Commission,” he recalled. “It needs to be written in a way everyone can understand.”
The watchdog noted another challenge with hiring and training employees to staff the call centers. Much of the work has been contracted out to third parties but the state initially did look inward for help.
“VEC requested other state agency staff be temporarily assigned to assist with UI. But no staff from other agencies were willing to work at VEC and executive branch officials did not require them to do so,” Axselle explained.
JLARC noted that leadership neglected to deploy the National Guard or the state’s emergency workforce to quickly increase VEC staff.
VEC leadership requested an exemption from certain hiring requirements from cabinet officials in April 2020, but the request was not granted, according to the report.
Axselle also said “different executive decisions” from Gov. Ralph Northam's administration would have improved the administration of benefits during the pandemic.
But after months of case backlogs and unanswered calls to the VEC, JLARC did report some good news.
The average wait time on the phone in June was 10 hours. That number has improved to just 20 minutes in October 2021.
Approximately four percent of calls were answered by the VEC over the Summer. That number has also improved to 12%.
However, one lawmaker questioned why VEC couldn’t answer 100% of all the calls that are received at the call center.
“The additional staff that has been dedicated to the call centers, particularly through Deloitte contract have made a pretty substantial difference,” Axselle stated.
Currently, 436 individuals are staffed at the VEC with plans to add an additional 200 people.
A VEC spokesperson said in a brief statement that “The VEC is reviewing the JLARC report and will continue to work with JLARC on their recommendations. The VEC has paid $14.5 billion to those in need and is committed to continuing to serve those eligible for unemployment benefits.”
Virginia’s Secretary of Labor, Dr. Megan Healy, told CBS 6 on Tuesday that she thanked JLARC for the report.
“The VEC has successfully paid out 10 years' worth of claims over the past 20 months—a remarkable achievement for an agency that has long been under-resourced. Call times are down to less than two minutes and adjudications are now back to pre-pandemic wait times. VEC’s new IT system will be live next week, and we will continue to work on the backlog of appeals,” Dr. Healy wrote in an email.
Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin used the troubles at the VEC as a talking point on the campaign trail calling the problems a “mess.”
“On day one we’re going to launch a statewide audit of every government department for fraud, for waste, and for transparency,” Youngkin told a cheering crowd before he was elected. “And guess where we got our eyes first? The big two starting points are the Virginia Employment Commission and the DMV.”
Back in November, Levy-Lavelle and the Legal Aid Justice Center warned the VEC about the issue through a letter that went unanswered, which led to the lawsuit.
He called it a “top-down” issue.
“More could’ve been done earlier and it’s crucial in the future Secretary of Labor and administrations plan for resiliency planning, so agencies are ready when disasters hit,” he said. “When you have a tidal wave coming ideally you start sandbags as soon as possible rather than wait a year to do that.”