Opinion: Commentary: Ongoing Unemployment Crisis in the Commonwealth

I wrote here in May that perhaps the most challenging aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic that was not health related remains the ongoing unemployment crisis throughout the Commonwealth. That was true then, and it is certainly true now. By far, the greatest number of constituent requests I receive on a daily basis is concerning the loss of employment and then the difficulty in navigating the unemployment claims process. I try to do what I can but the historically huge influx of claims has been overwhelming to the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) which has led to frustrating delays in responding and processing the benefits. However, the good news is that these administrative problems look to be improving as the agency is addressing this unprecedented challenge with updates to its policies, improvement to its communication to claimants, and by hiring more staff to handle the massive call volume. To make matters more challenging, from the beginning, the Virginia Employment Commission also had to deal with COVID-19 infections at its headquarters, and while it took every precaution possible to ensure their staff’s safety, it continued to serve the public, which you can imagine was not easy under those circumstances. On top of that they had a short turnaround of time to administer the federal benefits programs as well as our state system.

Virginia provides maximum benefits of $378 a week for up to 26 weeks. The federal government in March added an extra $600 a week for workers furloughed or laid off because of the pandemic. That benefit ends on July 25th.

Indeed, many Virginians are in desperate circumstances, experiencing tremendous financial pain, and need this lifeline to keep from becoming homeless and in order to pay basic bills for the necessities of life. For too many, the process has been extremely difficult and frustrating, especially for those that are turned down initially and then go through administrative hearings. I am told that there are currently 60,000 applications in the pipeline for review since March 15th, and the wait time can be more than 8 weeks. There is now a call center in Hampton, Virginia, dedicated exclusively to these administrative hearings with the goal of shortening the waiting period to between 6-8 weeks.

The trust fund that pays for jobless benefits could have a record $750 million deficit by the end of December. This is according to the VEC Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess, when she testified on Monday to the Commission on Unemployment Compensation. Consider also that at the beginning of this year the fund, which comes from the taxes paid by Virginia businesses, had a record $1.45 billion balance. And, when you add the federal government’s support, over $6.3 billion in unemployment benefits were paid out in the Commonwealth this year.

That is an enormous amount of jobless claims. So many that the VEC has been forced to almost double their staff and increase their call center staff from 82 to 450. They went from less than 2,000 claims a week to hundreds of thousands. It’s already ten times higher than all of last year and we are only half way through the year. A staggering number of 1,002,516 initial claims have been filed since January 2020.

This exceeds all claims collected from mid- 2014 through 2019, more than 5.5 years. And, 75 percent of all unemployment claims have resulted in payment by the VEC during the pandemic.

You can get more information on how to apply for unemployment insurance at the Virginia Employment Commission website. https://www.vec.virginia.gov.

There is also a groundbreaking statewide platform to assist Virginians with finding jobs and advancing their careers through training, education and employment services. You can find that online at https://app.virginia.myjourney.com.

Please email my office at DelPKrizek@house.virginia.gov with any individual concerns. We stand ready to assist you and your family in any way that we can. I am confident that together we will defeat this virus, rebuild Virginia’s economy, and get us all back to work. Please stay safe, wear your mask and practice social distancing and good hygiene.

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