WTVR: Lawmakers call Virginia unemployment benefit delays ‘unconscionable’

WTVR, CAROLINE COLEBURN

Out-of-work Virginians continue reaching out to CBS 6 to report problems accessing unemployment benefits. Some believe their issues could be resolved easily if they could just talk to someone on the phone.

Some Virginia lawmakers have also weighed in on the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) delays. At the end of March, U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D – Virginia) wrote a letter to Governor Ralph Northam, a fellow Democrat, asking him to speed up VEC’s process of disbursing benefits to unemployment insurance.

“I worked with a bipartisan and bicameral group of lawmakers in the U.S. Congress to pass a relief package shortly before Christmas because it was understood that loss of benefits at this time of the year would be particularly cruel,” Warner wrote. “Now, several months later, I hope you can agree that for constituents still experiencing delays the lack of pandemic unemployment insurance is unconscionable.”

It’s been nearly six weeks since Warner sent Northam that letter, and Virginians continue to experience issues getting in touch with the VEC.

“The economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has unexpectedly pushed so many Virginia families into dire financial straits,” Sen. Warner said in a statement when asked about where he stood on the problem now. “While Congress passed the American Rescue Plan to extend critical unemployment funding, I continue to hear from Virginians who are struggling, and they deserve a compassionate and urgent response. I continue to be in communication with Gov. Northam’s office as they continue working to provide much-needed support to our friends, family, and neighbors.”

Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger (D – 7th District) also noted her office continues to hear real difficulties that exist with the VEC.

“My office is there for people who want to make themselves heard,” Spanberger said.

Like Sen. Warner, she said her office has contacted state unemployment leaders on behalf of the thousands of unemployed Virginians who have reached out to her office struggling to access their funds.

“We are continuing to advocate with the state,” she explained. “We recognize that there has been a tremendous backlog, and most importantly, that it’s difficult to get people on the phone.”

But neither Sen. Warner nor Rep. Spanberger have any control over the VEC since it’s a state-run agency.

“I would just urge people to keep pushing,” Spanberger said. “We are working on it. I know the state is working to improve.”

CBS 6 reached out to Governor Northam’s office to find out where things stand at the VEC and his response to Senator Warner’s letter.

We received the following statement:

“Governor Northam is committed to getting Virginians the benefits they deserve. Over the past year, VEC has paid out $13 billion in benefits to 1.3 million people—more people than over the last 10 years combined. It’s important to remember that not everyone who applies for benefits will be eligible, and appeals require a longer process. But despite a record-breaking influx of claims, we are proud that Virginia is the 6th fastest state in getting benefits into the hands of eligible workers, according to the US Dept. of Labor. Like many states, we continue to work day and night to improve the system.”

But it’s hard for some Virginians, like Middlesex County resident Mitch Johnson, to believe things at the VEC will be fixed anytime soon. The former chef said he was laid off at the beginning of the year and applied for unemployment in February.

“I received the initial mailings that you hear them speak of the financial determination, and then the obligatory letter that basically explains to you how you need to maintain your account on a weekly basis,” said Johnson. “So that gave me confidence that I had filed correctly.”

But more than two months later, he still hasn’t received the VEC debit card on which he asked to receive his funds.

“My particular situation, it’s actually a very easy fix,” noted Johnson. “As weeks go by, still nothing in the mail.”

Without that debit card, Johnson said he was forced to apply for food stamps. It was through that process that he said he confirmed he was actually receiving unemployment benefits.

“As far as I know, there is either an account with my name on it that holds money that I am not being allowed to access, or my account has been fraudulently obtained by someone,” he explained. “It’s like a snowball going down the hill that I can just only sit here and watch it, and I have no means to bring it to a halt.”

Johnson has applied for another card and has called the VEC multiple times, but said he hasn’t been able to get anyone on the phone in two months.

“It was consistently automated recordings, giving very poor direction, very inaccurate information,” he said.

Johnson, like many Virginians, continues to wait for help.

He said he was thankful for the support of his small community, and he remained hopeful his card will arrive in the mail.

“Maybe my story will open the eyes to say that, okay, well, maybe there’s a certain percentage of these people that are experiencing issues that are actually quite an easy fix,” Johnson explained.

CBS 6 has repeatedly reached out to the VEC regarding Johnson’s case and the current staffing levels and phone issues at the agency, but we have not yet heard back.

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