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CASEY: 10 months after firing, newswoman finally gets $11,600 in overdue jobless benefits

CASEY: 10 months after firing, newswoman finally gets $11,600 in overdue jobless benefits

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Kay Norred, 48, never imagined she would find herself jobless for months, applying for food stamps, picking up her next meal from a charity pantry, signing up for Medicaid, squatting on a bagel shop’s free Wi-Fi or borrowing a homeless shelter’s image scanner.

Sadly and frustratingly, all that and more has happened since August, when Norred said she was fired from her job as news director at WFXR, the Fox television affiliate in Roanoke.

Since then you could say Norred’s been through a bureaucratic wringer with the Virginia Employment Commission. After her initial claim, a VEC deputy in Grundy sent her a one-page determination, signed by the deputy’s employee number.

The beginning of the letter seems to indicate Norred was ineligible for jobless benefits. But the letter’s end said she was approved to receive them. Which was it?

Norred’s spent the past five months trying to figure out which was which. The benefits never showed up in her checking account, where they were supposed to be direct deposited. Her attempts to communicate with the VEC have been an ordeal.

The only way she’s been able to get hold of anyone there is by going online and making an appointment to receive a phone call two weeks into the future. Norred’s done that repeatedly. It’s a hell of a way to communicate with an agency that owes you more than $11,000, while you’re going broke.

In the interim, Norred said she’s applied for at least 100 jobs, from country western deejay to herb harvester and marketing assistant. All without landing one.

To save money, Norred moved from Salem, where she was renting, to a small apartment in a rental home she owns in Harrisonburg. She’s burned through $30,000 in savings, and as of 3 p.m. Friday she was down to her last $7,000.

At one point, to see a doctor, Norred waited in her parked car for hours the night before a mass free clinic at the Rockingham County fairgrounds. Then a tree fell on her house. And a social worker notified Norred he was canceling her food stamps because the VEC told social services Norred was receiving benefits she never got.

As you might imagine, Norred felt desperate when she called me June 4 at the suggestion of a friend. She cried on the phone that day. We’ve talked a bunch of times since.

That’s how I learned about her long career in TV news in Florida, Georgia and Virginia — and the aftermath of her firing last August. Both raise a lot of questions.

Why did Norred get fired from the station? Nobody there ever told her, she said. (I called WFXR General Manager Ben Oldham and Human Resources Director Monica Taylor; neither returned voicemail messages I left.)

Norred believes that circumstance has hampered her search for a new job, because on every application she’s filled out, she’s had to check the “yes” box adjacent to the question, “Have you ever been terminated or asked to resign?”

The next question on the applications is, “why?” Norred said she’s had to leave that one blank each time. She assumes her failure to answer squelched every job application she submitted.

After leaving the station, she spent the first four months looking for another job. When her search proved fruitless, she applied for unemployment benefits early in January. The VEC letter that indicated Norred was both disqualified and qualified for benefits was dated Jan. 29. It noted her employer never furnished the VEC with a reason for dismissal.

Since then, on those phone calls for which Norred had to make a two-week-advance appointment, VEC workers told Norred the agency was paying her. But why didn’t the benefits make it to her checking account? What happened to them? Is there anyone at the VEC who could help her?

These days, those are more easily asked than answered because the VEC has been overwhelmed by an unprecedented number of jobless claims related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Claimants aren’t the only people who find it difficult to contact the agency. It’s hard for journalists to get hold of anyone there, too.

Before I began trying, I contacted Jeff Jones, spokesman for the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond. With a degree of success, it filed a class-action lawsuit against the VEC stemming from a backlog in benefits affecting thousands of unemployed Virginians. I was seeking ideas from him for avenues I could pursue to help Norred.

Jones suggested I call Megan Healy, Gov. Ralph Northam’s chief workforce development adviser. Tuesday shortly after noon, I did. Healy was in a meeting. I wound up talking to her assistant, Felix Shapiro, who sounded quite sympathetic to Norred’s plight. He said he would see what he could do.

I have no idea who Shapiro talked to. But no kidding, less than 15 minutes after our call’s end, two managers at the VEC made a conference call to Norred. One of them, Malissa Short, was able to troubleshoot the problem.

And Friday afternoon about 3:30, Norred found the money in her account — every bit of the $11,593 in benefits she was due.

“You are my hero,” Norred wrote me in an email.

Joyce Fogg, a VEC spokeswoman, said the payment problem’s root was that the agency had an incorrect bank account number for Norred. Fogg said the account number was furnished to the agency by Norred herself.

But I know from talking with Norred there was a bit more to her ordeal than that. At one point, during one of those appointment phone calls with the VEC, Norred said a staffer told her she’d have to find out where the errant funds went by herself. How was Norred supposed to trace the VEC’s money?

There are lots of questions hanging.

One is, why did it take five months to straighten out something so simple? Another: How many other jobless Virginians are in the same boat?

Why, as recently as May 26, was Norred still getting text messages from the VEC telling her she didn’t qualify for benefits — months after other employees were telling her the payments had started?

And why wasn’t the problem resolved until a journalist began raising questions?

Government’s supposed to serve the citizens. Things should work better than that.

Contact metro columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or dan.casey@roanoke.com. Follow him on Twitter:.

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Dan Casey knows a little bit about a lot of things but not a heck of a lot about most things. That doesn't keep him from writing about them, however. So keep him honest!

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