RICHMOND, Va. -- Half-a-year has passed since Amber Dimmerling said she’s received any unemployment benefits from the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC). The single mother from Northern Virginia lost her job at a restaurant during the start of the pandemic.
Her benefits suddenly stopped in the Fall.
“For six months I’ve been calling, and nobody answers. Nobody picks up,” she said. “I’ve been calling since October not being able to talk to a live person."
She then decided to seek legal action against the VEC.
Pat Levy-Lavelle with the Legal Aide Justice Center represents Dimmerling and four plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the VEC. About 400 people have since reached out to his office sharing stories about their own VEC problems.
“What the VEC has been doing is instead when an issue is identified for thousands of Virginians like Ms. Dimmerling is cutting off benefits while they then wait to decide the underlying issue and that’s backward to what is supposed to happen,” Levy-Lavelle said.
VEC has three weeks to decide unemployment eligibility, according to federal law. The lawsuit argued that the state failed to do that 95 percent of the time. Nearly all claims are taking ten weeks or more, according to the attorney.
An April WalletHub report showed Virginia ranked last among all 50 states in unemployment claims recoveries. The Commonwealth has recently risen to 44th within the past week.
Levy-Lavelle said there are certain factors at play.
He claimed that the VEC only doubled the number of adjudicators who work on processing claims. Levy-Lavelle said the VEC told his office in February they increased the number of adjudicators from 35 to 70 while neighboring states have gone big.
“Maryland recently signed a $70 million contract to bring over 300 deputy adjudicators via private contractor with a big staffing agency,” he said.
A VEC spokesperson said in a statement that there are approximately 100 individuals employed as claim adjudicators. Most of them were hired within the last year.
Dr. Megan Healy, Northam's Chief Workforce Development Advisor, said the state is in negotiations with a private vendor to double the number of adjudicators.
"We have to do some training with the new officers but they should be up and running in May," Healy said.
Levy-Lavelle said another factor is the decades-old benefits system that those adjudicators are forced to use to follow up with claims.
“The benefits system is 41 years old,” a VEC spokesperson said in an email. “We had expected to go ‘live’ with the new benefits system in the Summer of 2020, but work had to be suspended as a result of the pandemic and this historic claim volume that resulted.”
Lindsay LeGrand, the director of communications for the Virginia IT Agency (VITA), said VEC requested a suspension in March 2020 due to the impacts caused by the pandemic.
“VEC started the process to resume project execution on March 23, 2021, which requires multiple governance reviews. Those processes were recently completed, and the Chief Information Officer of the Commonwealth provided final approval on April 22, 2021 for the agency to resume project execution activities,” LeGrand explained.
VEC hoped to implement a new benefits system later this year.
“The systems are very old and that makes it harder to work with things,” Levy-Lavelle stated. “Old computer systems are part of the background, but we can’t leave it at that and throw our hands up.”
On March 25, Sen. Mark Warner (D - Virginia) sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam urging him to accelerate the VEC process after receiving numerous complaints from constituents.
“I recognize that some of the issues experienced at the state level have been a direct result of the burden inherited from a patchwork unemployment insurance system that has not been updated since its inception,” Warner wrote.
Warner recently co-sponsored the Unemployment Insurance Technology Modernization Act to ensure that the U.S. Department of Labor has the resources to develop a robust technology system that states can opt into using.
“This new system would address many of the issues that have caused delays for claimants, and I will continue to work to pass this bill into law,” he said.
Colorado has partnered with a Google program to identify information gaps on claims and worked directly to reach out to claimants to help fill in those information gaps.
When an employee looks at a case, the information is in place and cases can be processed more quickly.
Levy-Lavelle hoped a federal judge would rule that the state has violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs.
"Our case is based on prior cases that say that people are entitled to prompt adjudication in unemployment cases, and cannot be deprived of their constitutional right to due process," he explained. "During the pandemic, litigation has already been filed in a number of states. In New York and Rhode Island, litigation has already resulted in state unemployment insurance agencies taking steps to resume benefits and provide quicker adjudication of issues."
While Gov. Northam’s administration won’t comment on pending legislation, they said that the VEC has paid out $13 billion to 1.3 million people. That’s more people served than over the last 10 years combined.
"It’s important to remember that not everyone who applies for benefits will be eligible, and appeals require a longer process. But despite a record-breaking influx of claims, we are proud that Virginia is the 6th fastest state in getting benefits into the hands of eligible workers (according to the US Dept. of Labor). Like many states, we continue to work day and night to improve the system," a Northam spokesperson said in a statement.
Dimmerling has since moved back in with her mother as she continues to wait for a call from the VEC.
“I’m just waiting for answers and not wondering day to day what to do,” she said.
This story is part of a special edition of Rebound Richmond in which we examine the unemployment crisis in Virginia.
In-depth coverage begins on the CBS 6 News at 5.
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