COVID Pain Reaches Far

Va. Employment Commission processed 136,000 unemployment claims in 2019, but that number surged to 1.4 million in 2020.

— The trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to extend its painful reach. The number of COVID cases in Virginia continues to move towards a million cases, over 35,000 hospitalizations, and over 12,000 deaths. Fairfax County alone has had more than a thousand deaths. There is a glimmer of hope as the vaccination rates of eligible persons now exceeds sixty percent.

Beyond the medical issues and deaths, the pandemic has had a profound impact on our economy, our institutions, and our way of life. A serious additional profound impact has been on the workforce. People lost their jobs and their businesses as the pandemic spread. The Virginia Employment Commission processed 136,000 claims in 2019, but that number surged by ten times to 1.4 million in 2020 with the advent of the pandemic.

Virginia has historically had a low unemployment rate over the years. The impact of COVID was like a tsunami. The relatively small agency increased its staff overtime by 1,600 percent and hired a net of 473 full-time staff between January 2000 and August 2021 in an attempt to respond to the surge of unemployment claims. At the same time the federal government added six additional programs that provided financial relief to those previously ineligible. For those in need of financial support for the first time in their lives, the system was not able to keep up.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) which I chair has had its staff of nonpartisan researchers taking a hard look at the Virginia Employment Commission during this turbulent year to determine how to improve the services of the agency to be more responsive to those filing claims. An interim report was made by the JLARC staff earlier this week that laid out in detail the challenges the agency has had and what is being done to improve performance. A copy of the interim report is at http://jlarc.virginia.gov/reports.asp.

The report came as no surprise to legislators. My legislative office as well as the offices of all delegates and senators have been inundated with requests by constituents seeking help with the paperwork and processes of getting benefits for which they are eligible and which they needed because their jobs had been eliminated and no other work was available.

My legislative assistant and staff persons in other legislative offices have been spending nearly full time intervening for constituents who deserved better instructions and faster turn-around on their requests. The federal court intervened to require the state to take care of its case backlog.

Slow progress is being made, but still too many people are waiting for the relief for which they are eligible and which they need for survival. An antiquated computerized system is finally being replaced and will eliminate the need for far too many manual processes.

It is probably inevitable that this unfortunate circumstance becomes politicized. Finger pointing will not solve it, however. Application of needed resources and a commitment to meet the challenge are essential to address this aspect of COVID-related pain.

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