RICHMOND, Va. -- For more than two years, the CBS 6 Problem Solvers and Bill Fitzgerald have investigated a multitude of issues the COVID-19 pandemic exposed within the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC).
Chief among the issues is the inability of the state agency to accurately handle and respond to the overwhelming number of claims filed when the pandemic closed businesses, impacted the economy, and cost people their jobs.
After months of reporting on the issues, Fitzgerald was able to question current VEC commissioner Carrie Roth about the issues the VEC still faces and the help unemployed Virginians should expect moving forward.
"Have you been able yourself to experience what that might feel like, that is, the experience of the claimant who needs help?" Fitzgerald asked.
"Yeah, Bill, so I receive emails every day from our customers, I talk to them on the phone, it's very important to me to have that interaction with them firsthand, it shows to me and demonstrates to me the real challenges that our customers are having," Roth said. "One of the first things I did when I was commissioner [in January 2022] was say, okay, people complain because [they] couldn't get through to our customer call center, right? A call through or answered. And the first time I call, it hung up, I abandoned my call because I didn't have a claim. So I couldn't even talk to anybody."
Roth said that experience showed her the VEC needed to rewrite and simplify what employees said to callers.
"Really minimize that conversation so you could [get to people faster] they had to wait so that they didn't abandon those calls. So we could reduce our abandonment rate by over 50%. But the next time I call it, I still had to wait. And the next time I call it, I still had to wait. And then finally, it was a great day when I could call and get through and 43 seconds," she said.
Roth acknowledged the VEC has a long way to go.
The U.S. Department of Labor statistics for the first quarter of 2022 - the first for Virginia's new administration - put the VEC behind nearly every other state in several crucial categories, including getting that first check out to claimants, which the Labor Department said should take no more than 21 days.
"Virginia's 50th out of 51. Really only ahead of the Virgin Islands in that they only pay 20% within that 21-day window," Fitzgerald asked. "That's the first quarter of this year. What do you say about that? And how are you in the process of changing that? Because clearly, one would think with that kind of ranking, you'd want to change that?"
"So two years ago, before the pandemic set in, the agency, the VEC, was at a 50-year low in funding, and then, at one moment, received 50 times the normal number of claims," Roth said. "The agency didn't receive any additional support and staffing or funding until a year and a half into the pandemic."
"What we have seen is a significant number of potential fraud that is impacting that number," she continued. "But it is important to us that we protect our employers, the trust funds, and our customers from potential overpayments and make sure that those are true Virginians who have earned those benefits before we pay them."
The Labor Department also put Virginia at the bottom of the list for how long it takes claimants to get their first appeal heard: 310 days.
The Labor Department said that should take 30 days, putting Virginia ahead of only Alabama.
"So as far as the backlog of appeals, there were some 56,000 as of May, and for the first quarter ending March 31," Fitzgerald continued. "Another case where Virginia was 50th out of 51, with just under 3% even heard by 40 days."
"So one of the challenges was Bill is one, the technology for the agency went online and last fall, which created a number of issues for the appeals area," Roth said. "And that also impacted when you could schedule hearings. Also, the customers we talked about, they didn't hear anything, they didn't know they were going to get their benefits paid. So what we found was that that meant people went and started appealing their decision when they didn't even have a decision to appeal."
Roth said processing all the appeal requests and separating the ones that should go forward is time-consuming, especially since an actual hearing takes place before a decision can be made.
She also said despite the June 30 deadline for anyone who got a notice that they had been overpaid by the VEC to submit a waiver, allowances will be made for anyone who received the money in the designated 18-month window.
"Waived over $60 million so far between state and federal programs for those individuals who fell into that time frame where there was a state waiver that we could apply," Roth said. "Virginia is not typically a waiver state. So this was an exception to the rule of how because these folks were being overpaid through no fault of their own."
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