RICHMOND, Va. -- As thousands of Virginians remain unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some have expressed frustration as they attempt to collect unemployment benefits or get their questions answered.
Bill Fitzgerald spoke with Virginia Employment Commission Communications Manager Joyce Fogg to get some answers about why so many people have had issues trying to get through on the phone to actually speak to VEC employee.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Bill: You have tips for anyone trying to through on the phone?
Fogg: Yes, I recommend that people try early in the mornings just before 8 a.m., and try to get through. That’s when the call center opens and they will start getting their calls, early in the morning. We do now have call-back feature. So, if you do get through early, you don't get a person, but you get an option to leave your phone number, and then someone on the staff will call you back. That prevents you from having to sit there for hours and wait to get through. So call early in the morning, or call on Saturday mornings, because we are open on Saturdays from nine to one. And [doing it that way] it seems like people can get through pretty fast. I've had some people tell me that they called around 8 am. Or just before, got through, got their claims filed, and everything handled in six minutes, so that's pretty good.
Bill: You also that people should, if they do leave a callback number, make sure you have all your questions in one place, and, as we've heard with vaccination appointments, make sure you answer your phone.
Fogg: Yes. Write your questions down, because when you get through, then you've got all your questions there right in front of you, and you can ask those once you get through to a person. What people usually do is, say, ‘Oh, I forgot. I'll call back’ and then that ties up the line even more because more people are trying to get through. And if you leave your number for a call back, please answer your phone. It could be seven o'clock at night, our people work overtime to try to catch these calls up and get this work done. And so you may get a call at seven, 7:30 at night. Some people will say, ‘Well, I didn't expect anybody from the VEC to be calling then,’ but please answer your phone because, if you don't answer, you go back to the bottom of the list again.
Bill: Some people have told us, ‘I've tried to leave a callback number, to try to get to the point of leaving a message. If the phone volume is high, that is, if you call during the day instead of early, or on Saturdays, does that mean you might not be able to even get to that option? Because that seems to be what we're hearing: people say, I'm trying to find that option and I can't get to it. Does volume impact the ability to actually get to that point?
Fogg: Yes 2volume does [matter] because we only have a certain number of staff who can answer these calls and we don't want to have a week-long wait. So we try to put in an option to stop [taking the callback option] when we think it will get busy. We are getting 600,000 calls a week, so that's a lot of calls, and you know the staff can’t handle, you know 100,000 calls a day. So, we open the option as much as we can, and when it gets full we start answering those, and then later we open up some more space or availability for people to leave their callback numbers.
Bill: So that makes it even more crucial to call early or, as you said, on Saturdays. Now we're a year into the pandemic and you've described the volume of claims that the VEC has handled, but it's also the ‘benefit year’ that people have to be aware of . Basically, that a year in, they must, in a sense, sign up all over again. Can you, can you explain that?
Fogg: Yes. You get a benefit year when you first file your unemployment insurance claim. A lot of people were filing last March, when the pandemic started, so their benefit year is ending now. And when that happens, you do have to file for a new benefit year. That's the only thing at this point right now you should be filing for, is a new benefit year, unless you're just recently unemployed. You will get either a text message on your phone or on your ‘Gov to Go’ account- everyone has a ‘Gov to Go” account- and you will have a message saying your benefit year has ended. Most people I know have gotten text messages on their phone, and it gives you instructions as to what to do. I tell everybody, ‘follow those instructions specifically,’ and people in just a few minutes, they can file for their new benefit year. There are quite a few now because it's March, a year later.
Bill: And it's critical that people update their status, every week. You don't want to miss a week of not going online or calling in, and you've said that it's easier to do it on the phone.
Fogg: Yes, it can be done online, but it's easiest [by phone] if you have to file. Once you file your original claim, you have to file those continued weekly claims, and that's your certification that ‘I'm still unemployed, I'm still not working, or I'm working part time and this is the amount of money I earned last week,’ and then you may get partial unemployment. But you must file those continued weekly claims. I've had a couple of cases recently where they'll say, ‘well I got my benefits,’ but the first eight weeks, I didn't get it and that was a year ago. There is a time limit for filing those. So when we've gone back and looked, they did not file their weekly continued claims, and after that time period is gone by, you can't go back and file those. So make sure that once you file your original claim, you file those weekly continued claims.
Bill: You mentioned the VEC has a new call center and now has nearly 700 workers are answering the phones or dealing with cases.
Fogg: Yes we do. When we started, we had 52 staff people and now, with our extra third-party contractors who are assisting us, we have over 600 staff. But they're not all answering the phones, because some of them are doing the back-end work that as we call it, which is entering the information into the system, and doing follow-up calls and those kinds of things. They're also assisting with fact-finding interviews and calling people to get extra information that we need.
Bill: Our Melissa Hipolit did a story the other day where a woman in Richmond had gotten dozens, maybe hundreds of letters, using her address, but to all these different people who clearly did not live at her address. What is going on there? How could the VEC be sending, say, 100 letters, say, to the same address, to all the different people?
Fogg: Those are claims that have been filed in that name, with that address, and then they get the return information from us. They are not [actual] claimants who are not getting their letters. I realized as soon as that story ended, I was watching it and I saw one of the other newscasters say, ‘Oh, that's awful. Those poor people didn't get their mail.’ That's not the case at all. Those are not people who have legitimate claims, those are people who are trying to defraud the system. They've put a name on it, they've stolen the information, get it sent to an address where they'll try to come by and pick up the mail before the person picks their mail up. Or we found some instances where houses are for sale, and they target those. Then, after these applications that they filed in someone else's name, with that address, and they pick up the information, because that may contain the PIN number, or the monetary determination letter, which tells them what they're eligible for. So [all those letter] are not 16 claimants, legitimate claimants, who didn't get their letters. That's someone who's trying to defraud the system. You've even had stories about people using inmates’ names and that kind of thing. So it's names they’ve gotten, maybe they have a legitimate social security number, but they're putting in a fictitious address. So it's a claim that we get, but it's not a legitimate claim.
Bill: So if I were to get a letter to my address with someone else's name on it, what should I do?
Fogg: The first thing you should do is go online, if you have that capability, and there's a place hat you file a fraud claim. And then that comes into us and we instantly put a stop on that claim, so that no funds are allowed to be dispersed. I recommended to Melissa the other day that they either put ‘Return to Sender’ on the envelopes and return them to us, or shred them, because it has information in them. Don't just throw them in the trash because it's got somebody's social security number on there, or at least the last four numbers. But instantly go online and file the fraud form that's on there. I do want to caution readers that a lot of people will write back to me and say,’ I never heard anything. ‘This is something I recommended we change recently, they don't get a response, but we go ahead and we start investigating. Since we do not call that person back, I've asked that maybe we could get an automatic response on there that says ‘we received your fraud claim and we are investigating,’ because people want to know.