Virginia Employment Commission Faces 96K Appeals Backlog

Agency aims to clear backlog by November

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Nearly three years since the start of the pandemic, Virginia continues working to climb out of a mountain of problems associated with its unprecedented number of unemployment insurance claims, including a massive backlog with appeals cases. But the head of the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) said the agency has made a lot of headway.

Donald Winslow would love to be enjoying retirement right now. The 69-year-old told the News4 I-Team most of his days are spent fighting an uphill battle with the VEC.

"I don’t have any money and I have specialty meds that I have to get and I had to pay for them out of my pocket, and they’re expensive,” he said. “So, the unemployment would help me."

When his seven-year contract at the National Science Foundation ended in August, Winslow filed for unemployment, but his claim was denied. It was sent to appeals, and ever since he’s been waiting to get a hearing date.

"The first lady said four months,” he said. “The last lady said they’re a year behind."

A newly released report by the Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) showed, as of November 2022, a backlog of 98,000 first-level appeals. That number could include multiple appeals from the same person.

The VEC’s ability to resolve those cases falls well below the national average of 218 days with appeal decisions in Virginia taking up to 307 days.

“We're trying our best,” said Commissioner Carrie Roth, who took over the helm at VEC in January 2022. “It is a due process. So, there is an actual hearing that has to take place. It's similar going to court.”

She said the appeals backlog has improved slightly but still sits around 96,000.

The ideal wait time from when someone is denied unemployment, appeals a claim and gets a hearing would be about 90 days, Roth said.

Roth said the VEC has eliminated most of the other backlogs it faced since the pandemic, involving fraud investigations and first-time claims, which, in turn, contributed to the appeals backlog.

“The big driver that we've had in the appeals is overpayments, but we also had a huge number of folks that filed appeals that was not a true appeal. It was a complaint," Roth said.

The agency told the I-Team it has waived more than $221 million in overpayments and is currently recovering overpayments not approved.

But even as some gains are made, more challenges could be coming. According to that JLARC report, 55 contractors will stop assisting with appeals in March, and 37 temporary positions will expire in June.

“We have some budget requests in the governor’s amendments to address the appeals staff that will carry us through the end of the fiscal year," said Roth.

That recent audit presented to lawmakers also showed the call center could also take a hit when 55 positions expire in a few months. And it highlighted continued problems with the new benefits website, which was down at least 39 times last year.

"I feel like, well, I should just give up. But me? No, I don’t give up. I keep going," said Shana Marshall Graham.

She said she's had continued problems logging in or getting anyone on the phone after filing for an appeal in May 2021. She said 20 months later, she's yet to get a hearing date. Just this week, she said she did hear from someone with the VEC about a potential hearing date after the I-Team had inquired about her case.

"Why not help us and assist us when we need it, not make us wait over a year just to get your issues resolved?" she asked. 

Roth said they continue to make tweaks to the new website and now 60% of new claims are being filed online. They’d like that number to be around 90%.

Some of the problems with logging on could be because the system was unable to confirm the claimant’s digital identity.

“You have to have integrity in that system to make sure that folks are truly who they are,” she said. “That's where we can go and help and they can go and use either the customer contact center or what have you. But we've continued to improve the rules around that.”

The agency handles on average 75,000 calls per month. The most recent data showed an almost eight-minute wait time, up from almost seven minutes in November.

“One of the things that we did last spring and through the summer is we had mandatory customer service training agency wide,” said Roth.

She said there's a big push this year for everyone involved with claims – from employers to the claimants – to file electronically.

“We need our employers to fill out their separation reports, and now it's mandatory for them to use electronic means for all their communications on claims, and we need employers to step up and help us with this,” said Roth.

She said that could likely speed up claims being approved and help prevent identity theft, which amounted to about $1 billion –something not seen pre-pandemic.

As for those appeals, Roth said, "Our goal is to have all of our appeals by November of this year, the backlog completely done. That is our goal. And that includes new ones that have come in.”

She also pointed out the reversal rate for first-level appeals is pretty low at about 6% of the cases.

But she wants those still waiting to know the agency understands their frustration.

"It's really important to me that I am mindful of the human component of this and understand the challenges that these folks face,” she said. “That we're doing everything we can to complete those claims, and we've done tremendous amount of work and realize, though, that there are still those folks that we need to continue to help."

Reported by Susan Hogan, produced by Rick Yarborough, shot by Carlos Olazagasti and Jeff Piper, and edited by Jeff Piper.

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