More than two months after the coronavirus pandemic started forcing Virginia businesses to slash their workforces, the state's unemployment system still can't keep up with the unprecedented deluge of calls and emails from laid-off workers who need help.
Virginians across the state continue to report that it's nearly impossible to reach anyone with the Virginia Employment Commission by phone and have instead turned to social media, legal aid centers or their elected officials for help troubleshooting the complicated process.
The Virginia Employment Commission's five-person customer service team is getting as many as 20,000 emails a day, said spokeswoman Joyce Fogg, who acknowledged problems with the phone line and whose own phone rings off the hook all day long.
“Everybody's getting all kinds of requests right now," she said. “I just hope it's going to level out.”
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Virginia’s antiquated unemployment filing system — which Fogg said was put in place in 1985 — has strained under the demand for assistance unleashed by the pandemic. And Megan Healy, Gov. Ralph Northam's chief workforce adviser, has said the agency had to work quickly to staff up - in February it had about half the number of workers it did during the Great Recession.
Nearly 678,000 unemployment claims were filed between mid-March and May 8, according to a presentation Virginia Employment Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess gave to a Senate committee Tuesday. Of those, about two-thirds have been paid, according to her presentation, which said that over $2 billion in benefits have gone out since March 15.
The VEC could not provide a breakdown of the status of the remaining one-third of claims that remained unpaid. But Fogg said many were ineligible or awaiting an appeal or validation of some part of their application.
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Fogg said there are also lots of people “scamming and working the system," noting a recent email she received from someone who said she hadn't worked in years but wondered if she could get the supplemental $600 federal payment.
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The department recently acknowledged overpaying about 35,000 people, while others have reported a weekslong wait before receiving benefits.
Robert Hyde, who was laid off in mid-March from his job as a breakfast cook at a Virginia Beach hotel, said he filed for unemployment the very next day with help from his human resources department.
Hyde said for weeks his online account showed he had no benefits available, which he felt was an error. He made calling the VEC a part of his daily routine — though not once did he manage to get through — and found a part-time job making $8 an hour doing deliveries for Jimmy John's. He finally saw a $1,200 payment in his bank account Wednesday morning, about eight weeks after he initially filed, but said he hadn't received any notification about why it suddenly went through.
“I was shocked,” he said.
Fogg said capacity on the phone line is an ongoing issue. Once the line reaches a certain capacity, the system just hangs up on people, she said.
Many unemployed Virginians with internet access have turned to social media, using Twitter to troubleshoot questions or soliciting help in Facebook groups or on Reddit. News reporters have also been trying to help, forwarding Fogg questions about particular cases, she said. TV station WAVY reported it had referred about a hundred viewers to Sen. Bill DeSteph.
Sen. Steve Newman told Hess at the end of her presentation that he has had trouble getting answers from the agency regarding constituent questions.
“I know you're just inundated, you've never seen anything like this and your system wasn't set up for this, but making sure that we can at least get the answers back is pretty helpful,” he said.
Fogg said the agency has done its best to add staff to accommodate the unprecedented demand. She said it has added 25 workers at a southwest Virginia call center and 10 in South Boston. Retirees have been brought back on an hourly basis to help handle claims. VEC workers in other departments with unemployment insurance experience have been redeployed to focus on claims and more are being trained. And a third party has been hired to handle claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which covers workers who wouldn't qualify for regular unemployment.
“We’re hoping that’s going to pick up the pace, you know, and clear up some of the backlog," she said.
About 53,000 additional Virginia workers applied for unemployment benefits last week, according to federal data released Thursday, a figure that declined for the fifth straight week but was still far higher than before the coronavirus.
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