RICHMOND, Va. -- While the pandemic may be ending and overall employment is rising in Virginia, the fallout from 16 months of the coronavirus is still apparent in the Commonwealth.
Just ask the hundreds of unemployed Virginians who have been contacting CBS6 about their struggles to get benefits or even just answers from the Virginia Employment Commission.
They’re just a subset of a much, much larger problem.
You may recall, a judge has ordered the VEC to clear its backlog of 95,000 claims by Labor Day. But as Joseph Harris will tell you, from his perspective, not much at the VEC has changed.
“I didn't get any notification after I made my claim,” Harris said. “I was calling up there, and I couldn't get in touch with nobody.”
The 36-year-old Harris echoes what we’ve heard from hundreds of viewers: the frustrating dead-end you encounter when you try to find someone at the VEC who can actually explain why you’re still waiting for benefits, which in Harris’ case has been more than five months.
“They gave me a number and they said I was gonna be on a waiting list for a few months, but I’ve never received a phone call or anything,” said Harris. “So I just kept trying, when I was putting in my claims. My claims were going through, and it was saying, ‘your claim was accepted.’”
Visiting a local branch, calling by phone, going online, nothing has gotten Harris any answers. Worse, when he finally managed to get a call back, the VEC employee told him she could not actually do anything to help.
“She then told me to call the same number that I had called to put in my claim,” he said. “She told me to call the same number that I got in touch with her with!”
The South Richmond warehouse worker was laid off last year during the pandemic and actually got benefits for several months before they stopped in January with no explanation.
He's even contacted his local delegate.
“I called Kirk Cox's office,” Harris said. “Somebody called me back within the same day. They say that they will be reaching out to the VEC.”
Harris says despite a lawsuit against the VEC and the governor's call for the agency to clear the backlog of tens of thousands of Virginians waiting for answers, no one appears to be in charge and worse, no one is accountable for the months of uncertainty he's been put through.
“It definitely was hard,” said Harris. “It was hard to get back into the workforce. Luckily, I have loved ones but I felt bad because I put a heavy weight on them. I was putting weight on them because of the lack of the benefits that was owed, and basically promised, to me.”
Harris says he recently began work training as an electrician but he wonders what's going to happen with those five lost months.
I asked him what he would say to VEC Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess.
“This [backlog of claims] is a terrible issue because it's got a lot of people struggling,” Harris. “When people are actually doing the right thing, the fact remains that you can't talk to anybody. There's nobody to reach out to, you know, to get this issue resolved. It's outrageous."
VEC spokesperson Joyce Fogg does not have a working office phone, so I sent her multiple emails about Harris's case.
She has not responded.
As far as accountability at the VEC for all those Virginians still waiting, you may recall we spoke directly to Gov. Northam about Commissioner Hess last week.
Northam would not commit to making Hess, whom he reappointed to the position, available for an interview.
But we’ll keep trying.