RICHMOND, Va. -- As thousands of unemployed Virginians continued to wait months to hear back on their claims, the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW) credited an updated UI system for helping them process a larger volume of claims in a shorter period of time amid the pandemic.
In Virginia, a decades-old system and not enough staff were two causes of major back-ups the VEC experienced when trying to process the influx of claims, according to Dr. Megan Healy, the Chief Workforce Advisor for Governor Ralph Northam.
The backlog, impacting hundreds of Virginians who reached out to the CBS 6 Problem Solvers.
Virginians like Maurice Nance -- who hasn't received a paycheck in 10 months.
"I got bad depression and anxiety. I can hardly sleep," said Nance. "It just took a toll on me."
The Pamplin father of three applied for unemployment benefits with the Virginia Employment Commission in August 2020 after he said he was laid off from his solar panel technician job amid the pandemic.
"Stayed smiling because you got three boys. You can't let them see you -- you can't," said Nance.
Three weeks after filing, and no word, Nance said he reached back out to the VEC where he said there was some confusion about the program he should file under.
"I was like, 'what's going on? I'm barely making it,' you know? And I kept calling them. And I made it my job every day to call them and try to get in contact with somebody," Nance said.
Months later, after dozens of unanswered calls, and attempts to reach someone, Nance was finally told his account had been flagged as fraudulent, but he still doesn’t know why.
"I got my paperwork to show that I've been laid off and I got all my information," Nance said. "And they told me, 'Yeah, we're still working on it. We're still working on it.' And it's May and you’re still working on it?"
Meanwhile in South Carolina
More than 300 miles away, Irmo, South Carolina resident Brooke Rowlett was benefiting from a system modernized in the last four years.
"I can't imagine going seven, eight months without a payment," said Rowlett. "I would be desperate."
The mother of two young children had been receiving unemployment benefits off and on since March 2020 through the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce known as DEW.
"That money is very important. I don't know how people have gone without it," said Rowlett.
In the Fall of 2017, South Carolina joined North Carolina in modernizing its UI systems through a Department of Labor grant.
DEW spokesperson Heather Biance, said in the first nine months of implementing the new benefits system, they were able to save more than 17,000 hours from the automation of initial claims.
And for any claims with issues? The system saved 4,000 hours to “auto-adjudicate” those claims.
"What we have found in the pandemic is that having an automated system allowed us to process a larger volume of claims in a shorter period of time," said Biance.
South Carolina was also among the first states to implement new federal programs during the pandemic.
Biance said their modernized system played a huge role in that.
Back in Virginia
Dr. Healy said the last time the VEC's system was modernized was in the 1980s.
She added that the decades-old system was supposed to be updated in June 2020 but that work was put on hold in March due to the pandemic.
"So, we are a little behind, but we’re working hard to get that system up and running definitely by the end of this year," Dr. Healy said.
In addition to the system, Healy said there was a shortage of staff overwhelmed by the influx of claims -- that amounted to 1.6 million claims received since March 2020. That's more than ten times the previous year’s volume.
In South Carolina, on the other hand, DEW has received comparatively fewer claims with just under 900,000 since March 2020 or more than seven times what they received in 2019.
But Biance said the agency managed higher demand by bringing in workers --at the peak of hiring going from 50 call center staff members to more than 600. That's an increase of more than 12 times the number of workers.
Compare that to the VEC, which in February 2021, expanded their number of call center staffers by eight times, according to a VEC spokesperson.
In May 2021, following a settlement in a lawsuit against the VEC, the agency announced it hired a private sector partner with 300 additional staff to investigate claim issues.
However, back in April 2020, DEW was able to extend their call center hours adding Saturday hours as well.
And hearing that voice on the other end made all the difference for callers like Rowlett.
"It meant the world that somebody was actually going to try to advocate for me," Rowlett said.
But while things started seamlessly for Rowlett, they weren’t always that way. Starting in late March, she missed eight payments after filing a new benefit year.
"I’m going why, why have my payments stopped, and they, they couldn't get to me. And, you know, with two children, that money was saving me," Rowlett said.
She said she called up to ten times, one time waiting on hold for up to two hours.
"They would be like, 'oh, well, they're just processing it,'" Rowlett said.
But on Thursday, after reaching out to her local senator, the funds came through.
"Now I’m running and I'm paying my bills," Rowlett said.
Meanwhile, just a few months short of a year after he first filed, Nance continued to wait.
"This is really not a good look for the state of Virginia," Nance said.
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