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CASEY: Ex-bus driver caught in VEC benefits limbo for 15 months

CASEY: Ex-bus driver caught in VEC benefits limbo for 15 months

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Earlier this year, a group of poverty and consumer law attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against the Virginia Employment Commission. It targeted a backlog of some 92,000 undecided unemployment filings by jobless workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In May, the plaintiffs and defendants reached a settlement. The VEC promised to erase 95% of the backlog by Labor Day, which was Monday.

And on Aug. 10, the agency asked U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing it had cleared the backlog of “unadjudicated” cases and met settlement targets. On Aug. 25, Judge Hudson refused the request and kept the lawsuit alive.

“The Court continues to frequently receive telephone calls from individuals reporting difficulties processing their claims and communicating with the VEC,” he wrote in an order that kept the case under the court’s supervision.

Watching on the sidelines from hundreds of miles away was Teresa Hatchel of Wytheville. She wasn’t one of many desperate workers directly calling the judge’s chambers. But the 51-year-old former bus driver could have been.

She’s been waiting more than 15 months for $12,732 in benefits she’s due. Those date to May 2020.

There’s no question the VEC owes that money. A VEC examiner heard Hatchel’s case July 13 by telephone — nine months after she appealed a ruling she was ineligible for benefits. The appeals examiner found in her favor July 20, according to one (of many) VEC documents Hatchel shared with me.

But as of Labor Day — seven weeks after she won her appeal — Hatchel still hasn’t seen any money. She said a VEC official told her last week that her account information in the agency’s computer system had been “hijacked.”

The unknown hijacker had changed Hatchel’s mailing address, phone number and bank account information in the agency’s system, the official informed her.

On Wednesday the official promised to update Hatchel’s information in the VEC system with correct details supplied by Hatchel. He told Hatchel the funds should be in her account by this past Friday. They weren’t.

On Friday, a different VEC official — this time a woman — told Hatchel her personal information had not been updated in the agency’s computer system. And that’s left Hatchel in the same benefits limbo she’s experienced for 15 months.

It’s unclear whether her experience with the agency is typical. On Thursday, I emailed the VEC’s spokeswoman and requested some general statistics (as opposed to personal worker information) about hacked or hijacked VEC accounts. I didn’t receive a reply.

But evidence is out there that the same thing is happening to other workers, said Jeff Jones, a spokesman for the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond, which spearheaded the class-action lawsuit.

Jones told me he knows that from monitoring social media regarding unpaid unemployment benefits in Virginia. Although the evidence is anecdotal, he said there’s been an uptick “in complaints about claimants account numbers or payment methods being changed.”

“The complaints have slowed some in the most recent few days,” Jones added.

Hatchel’s case is not unlike that of another desperate unemployed worker I wrote about in June. It was Kay Norred, fired from her news director’s job at WFXR in Roanoke last summer.

Bad bank account information in Norred’s VEC account waylaid $11,600 she was due for more than five months. That got straightened out in minutes after I reached out to an official who works for Megan Healy, Virginia’s secretary of labor. (Norred, by the way, has landed a news director’s job out of state and begins working later this month.)

Hatchel’s path through the VEC’s bureaucratic maze has been a bit more complex.

Unlike Norred, Hatchel quit her bus driving job after her employer declined to reduce her schedule. (She was paid for 6.5 hours each day she worked, but those hours were spread between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.) A reduction in hours was suggested by a licensed clinic social worker who’s been caring for Hatchel since 2019.

After Hatchel resigned, she filed for unemployment. The VEC initially approved $95/week in state benefits, and later another $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits. Each week, Hatchel reported to the VEC declaring she was “able to work” and looking — for a job that required fewer hours.

In all, Hatchel received $5,568 before the benefits were suddenly terminated in May 2020.

The benefits ended because Hatchel’s therapist erroneously sent the agency a form declaring Hatchel was “totally unable to work” — twice. That contradicted what Hatchel was telling the VEC in her weekly calls. And the conflict resulted in Hatchel being declared ineligible for benefits, according to VEC emails Hatchel shared with me.

“My therapist is used to dealing with Social Security and other agencies, but she’s never dealt with the VEC before,” Hatchel told me.

After she was deemed ineligible, the VEC began sending Hatchel letters demanding she repay the $5,568 she had received through May 2020.

Hatchel turned to the office of state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington. A caseworker suggested Hatchel file an appeal, which she did — on Oct. 27. That resulted in the telephonic hearing July 13, and the decision July 20.

In that, VEC Appeals Examiner N. Ozoh determined “the claimant has met the eligibility requirements” for the benefits that agency stopped paying Hatchel in May 2020.

So where Hatchel’s $12,732? That’s unclear. The most recent VEC official Hatchel spoke to, Karen Harrison, told Hatchel she should see the money in her account by today. That conversation was Friday.

“I’ve been nice, I’ve been patient,” said Hatchel, who in the interim found a part-time office-receptionist job. “I’ve tried to work within the system.”

Pat Levy-Lavelle, the lead attorney in the lawsuit against the VEC, told me that Hatchel isn’t even among the 92,000 backlogged cases the VEC says it has cleared up since May. That group is composed of applicants who haven’t been able to get an initial determination of eligibility — which Hatchel received soon after she filed.

Hatchel’s case is counted in a different cohort, as a “lower-authority appeal,” Levy-Lavelle said. The U.S. Department of Labor recommends those appeals should be heard in fewer than 30 days.

Right now the average wait for a “lower-authority appeal” hearing in Virginia is 274.6 days, or just about nine months. According to the federal labor department’s website, Virginia ranks 51st out of 53 U.S. states and territories for that measure. Only two jurisdictions are worse.

And that suggests there’s a whole other category of frustrated jobless workers, who’ve tried to work within the system, but still haven’t gotten their benefits. Like Teresa Hatchel.

They may be calling Judge Hudson’s chambers soon.

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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