Legislators aren’t willing to wait until November for a report on progress in processing unemployment claims by the Virginia Employment Commission.
A study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission will probe the problems that have beset the employment commission during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a bottom-of-the-nation ranking for unemployment claims that require additional staff review to determine eligibility for benefits.
But Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, is reluctant to wait on a study that quickly rose to the top in urgency for a JLARC work plan for the year that also will address a number of other weighty issues, such as transportation funding, juvenile justice reforms, a more progressive income tax, the guardianship program for incapacitated adults and affordable housing.
“When folks need action and they’re not getting it, it’s a fundamental failure,” McPike said in a meeting of the legislative commission on Monday to review its staff work plan.
JLARC Chairman Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, assured McPike and other members that staff will update them before the scheduled presentation of the study findings on Nov. 15.
Plum also said he expects progress “along the way” at the employment commission, which faced a massive increase in unemployment claims because of the job losses caused by the pandemic and additional federal assistance in response.
“As we start to move into agencies [for studies], things start to improve,” he said.
Legislators acknowledged the enormous workload on the agency, but they also complained about basic shortcomings, such as the failure to return phone messages left by unemployed Virginians frustrated by the bureaucratic challenges of getting relief.
“If you listen to our constituents, one of the big problems is they just can’t get a call back,” said former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who has made problems at the employment commission part of his campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Tracey Smith, associate director at JLARC, said the agency has launched a telephone call-back system, but she said, “It has not consistently been used.”
Smith said the VEC also has resumed its information technology modernization program, which had been delayed because of the increased workload at the agency in response to the pandemic. The delay has prevented consumers from electronically tracking their unemployment claims and submitting documentation, she said, but the agency restarted the initiative last month.
The agency also has more than doubled its unemployment insurance claims staff since the beginning of the pandemic, redirecting some existing staff to new roles in processing claims.
Unemployment claims increased by tenfold last year, from 136,000 in 2019 to 1.4 million in 2020. But while the volume of initial claims had decreased by 57% in March from a year earlier, performance in resolving disputed claims has “not improved,” Smith said.
Through the end of March, VEC was processing just 2.4% of claims requiring staff review within 21 days, putting Virginia at the bottom of a national ranking. The average duration of claims under appeal is 247 days. More than 612,000 claims were listed as waiting for more information about employee job losses, with 137,000 awaiting adjudication and 45,800 under appeal.
Last month, five women filed a class-action federal lawsuit against the employment commission for failing to promptly consider their unemployment insurance claims.
The JLARC study will examine unemployment insurance claims to “measure timeliness and identify process inefficiencies; evaluate the IT modernization contract and management; review the experiences of other states in handling surges in unemployment claims; analyzing staffing and funding levels; and interview various stakeholders about their experiences.
Despite their concerns, some legislators also were sympathetic to the challenge facing the agency.
“The magnitude of this is overwhelming,” Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, said.