RICHMOND, Va. -- A group of fed-up Virginians has filed a lawsuit against the leader of the Virginia agency that handles unemployment benefits, alleging “gross failures" to provide needed help as required by law amid the coronavirus pandemic. The class-action lawsuit was filed Thursday morning in federal court in Richmond on behalf of the plaintiffs by several legal aid groups and their pro bono partners. Named as the defendant is Ellen Marie Hess, head of the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC).
Ashley Cox is a plaintiff in the class action lawsuit. She lost her job in November 2020.
“It makes you want to beat your head into the wall trying to figure it out," Cox said about her trouble getting help from the VEC. “It is this constant, never-ending, not knowing what’s going on.”
Cox said, for months, she has tried to get answers about unemployment benefits.
“You call and then I would get hung up on and I’m like, what is going on," she said. “We were on the verge of losing our electricity, there were a lot of financial struggles happening.”
Cox is part of the lawsuit that alleges the commission violated the rights of Virginians who have either applied for benefits and gotten no response or who had their benefits abruptly halted and faced lengthy delays in having their case adjudicated.
“The purpose of the lawsuit is to get the VEC to do its job," attorney Daniel Turczan said. “I think we’re probably in a worse position than we were a year ago. The backlog simply snowballs from month to month to month. Now we probably have a larger backlog than we did in December, probably a larger backlog than we did a year ago.”
Turczan said he hoped the lawsuit would prompt the VEC to hire more people to handle claims or at least outsource the effort. He also mentioned the need for the state to upgrade or replaces its computer system.
The lawsuit does not allege that everyone who files a claim with the VEC is entitled to benefits, the groups bringing the suit said in a news release.
“But every Virginian who files a claim for benefits is entitled - by law - to a prompt response from the VEC. And everyone who has begun to receive benefits is entitled - by law - to continue receiving benefits until a VEC deputy decides otherwise,” the news release says.
A spokeswoman for the commission declined comment.
The agency has been swamped with an unprecedented flood of applications for benefits since the start of the pandemic. But problems have persisted for over a year, leading critics to say Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's administration has not done enough to resolve the issues.
Virginians in need of help and unable to get answers from the commission have turned to news reporters and social media, and flooded the offices of their local elected officials with calls for help.
In the news release, the legal groups noted Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner recently wrote to Northam urging him to speed the distribution of unemployment benefits.
"I hope you can agree that for constituents still experiencing delays the lack of pandemic unemployment insurance is unconscionable," Warner wrote in the letter sent in late March.
Data kept by the federal government also shows Virginia has been particularly slow in dealing with certain claims. For the fourth calendar quarter of 2020, the Commonwealth ranked last among all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for timeliness in deciding “nonmonetary issues,” such as why someone's job ended, the lawsuit notes.
A spokeswoman for Northam did not respond to a request for comment.
One plaintiff, Lenita Gibson of Portsmouth, was laid off in February 2020 from a shipyard, according to the complaint.
Gibson, who had worked in shipyards for roughly 20 years, filed for unemployment and received payment for about three weeks before her benefits were halted without explanation.
The lawsuit says Gibson waited for months for word from the commission, often trying without success to get through on the call system, until receiving a form letter dated December 2020 that said her payments would resume while she waited for her case to be reviewed by a deputy.
“Nevertheless, Gibson has not received benefits,” the lawsuit says.
Gibson found work at a seasonal swimming pool last year but no other employment and became homeless for about four months from late 2020 to early 2021, according to the complaint.
“I have no income now, other than food stamps. I have a roof over my head again, for now, only through temporary assistance from rent relief programs,” Gibson said in a statement. “The financial loss has been tremendous, and emotionally you are just a wreck. It’s been horrible.”
The plaintiffs are seeking the adjudication and payment of their unemployment benefits and a prohibition against “further violations of law,” plus attorneys’ fees and costs and other relief the court deems just and appropriate.
“We hope the lawsuit filed today will give these hard-working Virginians quick, tangible relief,” Ann Kloeckner, the executive director of Legal Aid Works, one of the groups involved, said in a statement.
The Legal Aid Justice Center and the Virginia Poverty Law Center are also assisting with the case, along with Consumer Litigation Associates, a Newport News-based firm, and Kelly Guzzo, PLC, based in Fairfax.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.