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CASEY: VEC pays thousands to long-waiting Wytheville worker

CASEY: VEC pays thousands to long-waiting Wytheville worker

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You may have read Tuesday’s column about Teresa Hatchel, 51. The former part-time bus driver from Wytheville has been waiting since May 2020 for $12,732 in unemployment benefits. Those got tied up in a series of bureaucratic knots in the Virginia Employment Commission.

Friday morning at least one of those hitches finally came undone. When Hatchel awoke and checked her bank account, she found a new deposit — for $6,936 — that wasn’t in there Thursday. It’s the majority of the money she’s due.

She’s been told by a VEC official to expect two more deposits to cover the balance. As of Friday afternoon, those hadn’t yet landed in Hatchel’s account.

“She said something about they have to make payments one day at a time. So I may have to wait until Saturday, or Monday or Tuesday,” Hatchel said.

The payment to Hatchel capped a 17-month ordeal during which the agency initially declared her “eligible” for benefits in March 2020, then reversed that determination two months later. The reversal forced Hatchel’s family to take on debt and rely on help from friends to pay their bills, as Hatchel waited nine months for an appeal.

Friday, VEC spokeswoman Joyce Fogg said the agency currently has a backlog of 62,000 “lower-level” appeals like Hatchel’s pending. About 35 examiners are handling those cases and the agency is seeking to hire 15 more, Fogg added.

The first hitch with Hatchel’s benefits in May 2020 occurred because of a paperwork error by Hatchel’s mental health therapist, after Hatchel quit her bus-driving position on the therapist’s advice.

Workers who leave a job for a documented health reason are eligible for unemployment. And that’s precisely what the VEC declared after Hatchel applied in March 2020. The agency’s “determination of benefits” letters said she would get $95 weekly in state benefits and $600 weekly in federal benefits.

The payments started that month, which is when Hatchel began calling the VEC weekly and reporting she was “able to work” and looking for other employment.

Two months later, in May 2020, the benefits ceased and a VEC deputy declared Hatchel “ineligible.” That happened after Hatchel’s counselor mistakenly sent the agency a form on which the therapist erroneously checked a box that declared Hatchel “totally unable to work.”

The contradiction prompted the VEC to cut off Hatchel’s benefits. The VEC also demanded Hatchel pay back the $5,568 in benefits she’d received before the cutoff.

At the advice of a staffer in the office of Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, Hatchel appealed the reversal in October 2020. She waited until July 13 for a hearing over the telephone. And then on July 20, VEC Examiner N. Ozoh issued a decision in Hatchel’s favor.

That meant Hatchel no longer had to repay the agency. It also meant she was retroactively eligible for all the benefits the VEC should have paid since May 2020 — $12,732.

But even that wasn’t enough to get Hatchel the back benefits.

After the appeal in her favor, six weeks passed during which Hatchel could not get the agency to send her the money. Hatchel reached out to Pillion’s office again — and after that she got a call from a male VEC official.

He told Hatchel that someone “hijacked” her mailing address and bank account information within the VEC’s computer system, and changed details for both of them. The money had been directed to a bank account Hatchel had not opened. The official promised to correct the bad account and address info.

Around this time is when Hatchel contacted The Roanoke Times.

“Friends from church had urged me to contact you,” Hatchel said. “They said to ask for you specifically and you would get it done. And you did.”

It’s still unclear to me whether I was any help or not. I contacted the agency the afternoon of Sept. 2, with an email to Fogg about Hatchel’s plight, and some general questions about the prevalence of fraud with VEC benefits.

I never got answers, and nobody replied. But only a few hours later, Hatchel was contacted by yet another VEC official. Her name was Karen Harrison.

Harrison informed Hatchel that her account information remained corrupted inside the VEC’s computer system, despite the previous official’s effort. But Harrison said she would fix it.

Friday morning’s deposit proved that Harrison wasn’t simply yanking Hatchel’s chain — which is how she felt treated by just about everyone else at the VEC with whom she’s spoken.

“I was making all these calls, and doing all this stuff, and nothing was happening,” Hatchel said. “I’d wake up in the morning and I’d want to go in a corner and cry. It’s like being in a car with motor revving, but it’s not moving.”

Hatchel doesn’t have big plans for the money. Most of it is going to credit card companies, to repay charges Hatchel racked up after her unemployment benefits ceased. She said she’s put $500 aside to help a special church friend who badly needs a new heat pump.

“I really want to thank you very much for your help,” Hatchel said.

Contact metro columnist

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

@dancaseysblog.

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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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