RICHMOND, Va. -- Last month, the Virginia Employment Commission told a federal judge it had cleared a backlog of nearly 100,000 Virginians who had been waiting months for their benefits and asked for the lawsuit against it to be dropped.
But Judge Henry Hudson ruled last week that while the VEC has made some progress toward his Labor Day deadline, the calls to his own office from frustrated claimants indicate the VEC still has work to do to catch up.
And so it must keep reporting to him and to the plaintiffs’ attorneys until September 25.
One Henrico woman couldn't agree more: after more than a year of trying, Carolyn Owens says there is still no way to get in touch with anyone at the VEC.
17 months ago, Owens' life turned upside when at the start of the pandemic, the hotel worker's boss told her she was laid off.
"He said the equivalent of ‘go-ahead on and file for unemployment,’ and my stomach just twisted up in knots,” said Owens.
But since he essentially told her to go straight to the VEC, she figured she had a safety net.
It turns out she did not.
"Each week, it said the information has been received, Social Security number and everything, and weeks went by, but I heard nothing,” said Owens. “A couple of months went by, and still I heard nothing."
As CBS6 has heard from hundreds of Virginians, even this late in the pandemic, a sure way to reach someone at the VEC remains elusive.
"It's been impossible,” Owens said. “I have called scores of times, scores of times! That sounds like an exaggeration, but unfortunately, it's not. And every time I call, I get a machine. Every time I call, I start to get hopeful because sometimes the machine says, ‘we're going to connect you with someone’ and 25 minutes go by, and nothing happened."
57-year-old Owens has been back at work for about a year but has not stopped trying to recover some 12 weeks of wages because she says the VEC's inaction has put her in a hole.
"It started to become a game, then it became depressing, then it became enraging,” said Owens. “And then I just threw up my hands. But through all of it, I never stopped trying. I just didn't get anywhere, never talked to a person once. I talked to lots of computers, but I felt like I was being, not even given the runaround, but going in a circle."
24 hours after we sent VEC spokeswoman Joyce Fogg details about Owens' case and how she was desperate to speak with someone at the VEC, Fogg sent this response: "If you do not continue filing, you do not get any benefits. If you are not able and available for work, you are not eligible."
Owens, who says she filed every week that she was out of work and that she was available, says that doesn't answer the basic question every claimant has: who can I talk to?
"Fortunately, I'm blessed to be living with relatives so the financial impact didn't leave me homeless, but it became more and more disheartening each week, Because I still had to do things like put gas in my car, I still had to get food, I still had to get medicine if somebody got a cold, so it took quite a toll,” she said. “If I needed new shoes or a new blouse for anything, I couldn't get it."
As for who is running the VEC more than a year and a half into this pandemic, it is still commissioner Ellen Marie Hess.
We have asked repeatedly over many months to speak with Hess but when I asked Governor Northam, who appointed her to the job, he would not commit to making Hess available.