RICHMOND, Va. -- Under pressure from a lawsuit and a judge's order to clear a backlog of Virginian's requests for information about their unemployment benefits, the Virginia Employment Commission announced a new appointment system.
However, an unemployed veteran said the new system hasn't changed anything for his situation.
"If you could speak to [VEC]Commissioner [Ellen Marie] Hess right now, what would you tell her?" I asked Army veteran Ken Cook.
"Answer the damn phone, get somebody that wants to actually work and get paid," Cook replied. "I'm 60-plus years old. I want to work, and I can't get a job."
You can tell, Cook is frustrated.
Not only does the unemployed shuttle driver say he never got the federal pandemic assistance he was supposed to get last year, but he says the Virginia Employment Commission cut off his regular benefits last month with no explanation. And no way to speak to someone with authority at the VEC.
"When you're trying to contact the VEC on the phone, they give you a number to call," Cook said. "You call that that number, which gives you another number to call. You call that, and they give you the first number to call. And they give you different options. Option number two is to speak to somebody, but they hang up on you. That's all they do: they terminate the call."
Cook was laid off by Hertz last year when the pandemic wiped out the travel industry and the car rental company filed for bankruptcy. He says not working is something he's not used to.
"I am from the generation where it's your almost your duty to work in this country," said Cook. "I grew up in a farm, that's all I know is work."
Cook said his doctor told him when he showed up at the hospital Thursday because his pacemaker stopped working, that accumulated stress was affecting his health. And Cook attributes that to his desperate efforts to get answers from the VEC.
So later that morning, the 67-year-old said he was hopeful when VEC spokeswoman Joyce Fogg, speaking about the chance for people with benefits issues to actually meet with a VEC representative to fix their problems, said this:
"You can go on to that link," Fogg told CBS-6's Caroline Coleburn. "And it will schedule an appointment for your area in your local office so that you can go in and talk with someone about your claim."
But Fogg later said that she misspoke, that appointments would only be by phone and that even so, claimants could only get appointments in their area.
An increasingly distraught Cook said the Richmond zone was already full. "I can't get through, there's no appointments for the end of the year," Cook said. "Yet they supposedly have appointments available. They give you the royal runaround, you're running in circles."
When he saw that other zones in Virginia had seemingly plentiful appointment slots open, Cook said he was furious. He says calling an endlessly frustrating and inaccessible bureaucracy, while also looking for work, is taking a toll on his health and financial viability.
"I can't feed myself, I can't feed my cats," he said. "My electric is going to be turned off, and my TV is going to be shut off from the internet. Just basically, I'm going down the drain."
Cook says no one from the governor's office on down appears to be making a difference in fixing the VEC's dysfunction.
"I'm a veteran," Cook said. "I'm a Vietnam War veteran. And I'm going to end up, at the rate they're going, I'm going to be a homeless vet. Thank you, VEC, I hope you're really happy."
I have asked spokeswoman Fogg each week for the last two months about speaking directly to Commissioner Hess, who was appointed by Governor Ralph Northam. While Fogg has never responded to my requests, she told CBS-6's Cameron Thompson Friday that would be no interviews with Hess for an unknown period because of a lawsuit against the VEC.
A class-action suit was filed because of the overwhelming backlog of Virginians who are unable to have their benefits issues resolved. So a judge has ordered the VEC to work through the vast majority of those claims by Labor Day.
That's apparently not much comfort to Cook. "They don't care, they're trying to make it look good for themselves, and they're dumping on the public and the governor is clueless," Cook said.
I reached out to Gov. Northam's Workforce Advisor Megan Healy about speaking to Hess. She said because of the state holiday Friday, she will speak to her next week.
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