Unemployed network technician says VEC has not improved since pandemic: 'Where's the accountability?'

Posted at 12:01 PM, Feb 04, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-05 17:25:39-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- With the U.S. economy humming along, and with unemployment near record lows, the pandemic may seem long ago.

But it's not exactly in the rear-view mirror for the Virginia Employment Commission.

In fact, many unemployment benefit claimants are as frustrated as ever with the poor performance of the VEC.

"When you try to call the phone number every time, day, night, opening, closing, you get the same message: that they have too many calls and that they can't accept your call right now," said Scott Marshall. "And it just hangs up on you."

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Marshall had a tough year last year: in March, the network technician was hurt on the job, spent the year out on worker's compensation, and then, despite being cleared to go back to work, was laid off in December.

Unfortunately, applying for benefits through the VEC didn't make things any easier.

"You get these emails that say, 'There's a new thing for you to fill out,'" Marshall said. "But you go on there and there's no notification that says, 'Go here. This needs attention.' You have to go and dig through and actually find what they're talking about."

Scott Marshall

It took Marshall about a month of playing Whack-a-Mole with every issue the VEC threw at him before he started getting benefits.

He says that was stressful, but then things took a bizarre twist.

In mid-January, a birth certificate from Pennsylvania that clearly was not his showed up on Marshall's VEC account.

He immediately notified the VEC.

And he even got an email in response. "The message that I got back, the person said, 'Well, it was obviously a mistake,'" said Marshall. "I'm thinking, 'Well, yeah, I would hope that it was a mistake!'"

But nothing happened.

In fact, nothing happened with that extraneous document until I contacted the VEC this week to ask about it.

Then, about 30 minutes before we walked into Marshall's home, the birth certificate disappeared from his account.

Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall

Marshall's experience mirrors that of many other Virginians: despite the promises of incoming Governor Glenn Youngkin, nearly four years after the start of the pandemic, US Department of Labor statistics for the last quarter, show the VEC ranks near the bottom of all states in getting that first benefit check out to needy recipients.

The DOL says the standard is that 87% of those first checks should be delivered within a 14 to 21 day window. But in the Commonwealth, it happens just 62% of the time, well below that threshold.

That puts Virginia 41st out of 52, with Washington D.C. and the Virgin Islands added to the 50 states.

Even worse, the VEC's performance in another key category has dropped each quarter. Virginia now ranks almost dead last in how long it takes to have your appeal of a VEC decision heard: 546 days.

That's a year and a half when the DOL says it should take only 30 days.

Only Alabama is worse. That's bad news for the claimants who are part of the VEC's backlog of 35,000 appeals.

Virginia Poverty Law Center's Flannery O'Rourke
Virginia Poverty Law Center's Flannery O'Rourke

"We know that the three big vulnerabilities of the VEC are getting those first payments on time, the overwhelming number of appeals, and the overwhelming number of overpayments," said Flannery O'Rourke with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

She knows a lot about how the VEC works or doesn't work.

Her non-profit was part of the class-action lawsuit in 2021 that forced the VEC to get benefits out in a timely fashion to the hundreds of thousands of desperate Virginians laid off during the pandemic because they had been waiting months and months.

In the summer of 2021, Judge Henry Hudson helped set performance benchmarks, including working through a claims backlog and processing new claims more quickly and required the VEC to update the plaintiffs quarterly.

O'Rourke says she still hears from frustrated claimants regularly but adds that despite its obvious dysfunction, the VEC is a Virginia problem.

"We need to work together in the General Assembly and outside the General Assembly to make critical systematic improvements so that no claimant has to endure what claimants are currently enduring," said O'Rourke. "Just last week, I had two claimants that finally got checks for the benefits that they were owed in 2020. We cannot do this again. We were not ready for the pandemic and we are not ready for the next economic downturn."

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While a true fix for an agency that had been starved of funds, especially computer and software upgrades for more than a decade, will take years of commitment and investment, Scott Marshall hopes his troubles are long gone by then.

"What I'm really concerned about is the accountability," said Marshall. "How can so many people go through this? And this is just accepted, that this is how things are. I don't find it to be acceptable at all."

O'Rourke points out some of the crucial measures aimed at helping the VEC perform better, are bills pending at the General Assembly right now.

One would require employers to respond more quickly when an employee leaves,HB14.

A second bill would waive overpayments, SB536, if the claimant was not at fault, and a third would set a statute of limitations for recovering overpayments, SB382.

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In-Depth: Virginia Employment Commission
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