CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- A Virginia schoolteacher who worked in daycare when the pandemic shut down her facility two years ago has quite the story to tell about the Virginia Employment Commission.
It seems despite the changes there, when something goes wrong, it's still nearly impossible to get answers, even when the VEC is sending you dozens of notices demanding you pay back money you never got.
“I feel harassed and nobody's helping resolve anything, and I can't get in touch with anyone,” said Katie James, who has been hearing from the VEC a lot recently. The trouble is, it's been two years since she got three months of benefits after she was furloughed from her daycare job at the height of the pandemic. And the VEC's notices now have a distinctly threatening quality.
“All of a sudden, I started getting ‘overpayment’ notices that had doubled or quadrupled, and multiple notices of overpayment of way more than I ever even received,” said James.
The 27-year-old Chesterfield mother of two small children who is now a public school employee, has a drawer full of letters from the VEC, which starting in March claimed she owed several thousand dollars in overpayments. But it got worse: the most recent letter claims she owes $16,000. And despite dozens of calls, emails, and attempts to get on her old account to figure out what went wrong, no one at the VEC will help.
And the letters keep coming, one even demanding she sign up for an installment plan.
"I've done nothing wrong,” James said. “I eventually went back to work — and this was still during the pandemic — and I don't owe anyone anything. I did what I was supposed to do. And for some reason, I don't know if it's a computer glitch or a human glitch, but nobody's fixing it.”
A cruel irony for James is that her experience with the VEC back in the summer of 2020 was exactly how she says an agency that exists to helping desperate Virginians should work: a few weeks after Covid shut down her workplace, she got relief.
"When I got it, I said ‘Oh, that was simple, easy, you know, during this pandemic, something I was grateful for, and honestly, I didn't think anything wrong with it and all went very smoothly,” James said. “I went back to work, and then fast forward two years. I have a whole envelope full of notices that I've received weekly and monthly.”
James says not only has she not received any payments from the VEC since she went back to work in August 2020, what the VEC did provide was nowhere near the staggering amounts they're now demanding from her.
"I don't even have any nice things to say at this point,” said James. “Every time they send me a notice, I do exactly what it says, hoping that it will be fixed. The word that comes to mind - I hate to say it - but it's ‘harassed.’”
As for the future, James says she shudders to think what will happen the next time hundreds of thousands of Virginians suddenly have to turn to the VEC for help.
"After all of this stress, and sleep that I've lost, thinking that I owe somebody money, well, I would never recommend anyone go on unemployment and have to go through something like this,” said James. “I mean, I hate to say this, but I would probably pick poverty over even applying, because of how hard that they've made this now.”
I reached out to VEC spokesperson Joyce Fogg several times this week about James’s case, and late Friday afternoon, just hours before this story aired, James got a call from someone at the VEC who said it was not her fault, that it was an administrative error, and that they will resolve the issue.
I'll let you know if they do.
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