RICHMOND, Va. -- A man who left his job at the beginning of the pandemic to help care for his child with autism says that the Virginia Employment Commission keeps sending him contradictory notices.
“Initially from May to June, I was on the phone hours at a time,” said James Keene. “It was just frustrating because I just could not get through.”
Keene knows the grief many Virginians endured over the last year and a half trying to get through to the VEC.
When the pandemic led to the closing of schools across the Commonwealth, the Richmond man’s job at Kroger came to an end.
“I had no choice but to leave work because I'm my daughter's full-time caregiver, because she has autism and is non-verbal, requires constant hands-on supervision,” Keene said.
At home with his 15-year-old daughter, he applied to the VEC for benefits, knowing he was unable to work but also sure he was eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA.
To his surprise, the VEC said he was eligible for regular benefits.
“That confused me because I know I wasn't available for those benefits because, by the VEC’s own rules, you have to be available to work and available to look for work,” said Keene. “I was capable of doing neither.”
But the VEC’s decision meant he was not eligible for the enhanced federally funded PUA benefits. That led to long hours on the phone and a back and forth with the VEC over the next year.
Initially, he resisted taking the benefits, hoping to sort out what he said was the VEC’s mistake. Ultimately, he received benefits for several months, but then they stopped.
And more confusing correspondence followed.
“September 9 , I got a letter from the VEC stating that they were going to take November and January back because I was found ineligible to receive VEC benefits,” Keene said, shaking his head at yet another reversal by the VEC. “And on the same day, I got a direct deposit of about $1,300 which wasn't explained to me then. I had no idea why I got that money when supposedly I wasn't qualified to receive the VEC benefits as per their letters September.”
But when Keene then applied for PUA benefits he was rejected. “So they kicked it back to the VEC. Three days later, I received a letter from the VEC stating that I was eligible for benefits full stop.”
But not for long, apparently. In late December, the VEC sent him a shocking letter.
“The VEC is now saying that I'm not qualified to receive benefits,” said Keene. “And they're taking it all back.”
VEC spokesperson Joyce Fogg did not respond to multiple emails over several weeks about Keene’s case. As he awaits the outcome of his appeals, he says he has no intention of giving up.
“The reason why I'm fighting so hard for these benefits is to be able to provide for my family,” he said. “We lost a car, at the beginning of the pandemic so we are dealing with one car between my wife, myself, my mother in law and the duties that I have as a full-time caregiver. I encourage all parents, of special needs children that are in my situation, that are having difficulty with the VEC, to contact your local elected official, anyone that can help you to try to step in on your behalf because I know what I'm going through.”
Keene said late Friday, just before his story was to air on CBS6, he was contacted by someone at the VEC who said he was not eligible for regular VEC benefits after all. They told him his departure from Kroger was a “leave of absence,” which would disqualify a claimant. Keene says that is not true.
He says he hope Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin stays true to his campaign promise of making dramatic changes to fix the myriad problems at the VEC.