Too often during this pandemic, the agency that’s supposed to help Virginians who have lost jobs through no fault of their own has instead added to their woes.
COVID-19, with its devastating economic effects, has put the Virginia Employment Commission to the test. Repeatedly the VEC has failed that test, complicating the predicament of people who find themselves out of work. Many of those people are the working poor, already on the edge of poverty.
It’s true the VEC never was designed to handle the avalanche of unemployment claims that COVID-19 triggered last spring.
In fact, Virginia may have struggled more because the economy had been in relatively good shape before the virus hit. After several years with some of the lowest unemployment figures in Virginia’s history, it was probably too easy for VEC to get by with outdated technology and a staff that was sufficient only as long as things went well.
When pandemic restrictions began closing businesses and throwing people out of work, the VEC was woefully unprepared to respond nimbly and effectively to the drastically changed circumstances.
The spike was dramatic. In the week ending March 14, 2020, VEC received new unemployment claims from 2,706 people. By the first week in April, that number had soared to 147,369. Soon weekly applications for unemployment benefits routinely numbered about 300,000.
Few agencies could have handled such an increase in demand virtually overnight or scaled up quickly to meet the challenge. It’s understandable VEC needed some time to change.
What’s not understandable, and not acceptable, is that a year later, things aren’t a lot better. There still are disheartening stories about unanswered phone calls, hours spent on hold, lack of information and unprocessed claims for unemployment benefits.
People who need help feeding their families, who face eviction and who can’t pay their bills simply don’t know when if ever they will get the help that’s supposed to be there for them.
Beleaguered VEC staffers still are working on a backlog of cases, some dating back months. Over the year of pandemic, VEC has paid out some $11.4 billion for 1.3 million unemployment claims. But there still are about 200,000 claims that haven’t been processed, and often the help arrived after frustration and delay.
Outdated technology and far too few workers made problems worse. VEC contracted with various vendors to help deal with the flood of calls.
Claims must be evaluated to make sure the displaced workers aren’t ineligible because they quit or were fired or for some other problem. VEC didn’t have nearly enough staffers qualified to evaluate claims that need a review or to deal with appeals. For much of 2020, Virginia ranked worst in the nation for quickly processing such claims.
Making matters worse, VEC accidentally overpaid 35,000 workers early in the pandemic and moved to make those people pay back a total of about $18 million. Recently, the General Assembly, realizing people received that money in good faith and probably don’t have it to return, wisely passed legislation forgiving that repayment.
As last summer wore news of the problems spread, legislators and advocacy groups began calling for VEC to fix things, quickly. VEC’s budget was increased for 2021.
More money this year and in future budgets will help, but the problems at VEC demand a fresh approach. Too many politicians in Richmond continue to view unemployment insurance programs as suspect and a tax burden on businesses.
Instead, as the pandemic has shown, it is essential for helping working people through unexpected economic upheavals. Unemployment insurance helps people stay in their homes, feed their families and weather a crisis. That helps stabilize communities and the local economy. It’s good for everyone.
VEC’s failures have increased the stress and pain for many Virginians, and they will make it tougher for us to move forward once the pandemic is under control.
One part of moving forward should be to reform VEC so it will be better able to deal with whatever the future might hold.