RICHMOND — Dozens of Democratic Virginia lawmakers called for reforms at the state agency tasked with handling unemployment benefits, saying in a letter Thursday that they were concerned about its ability to "adequately address" the high volume of claims because of the COVID-19 crisis.
Republicans lawmakers, who were not invited to sign the letter, also have been raising concerns about the Virginia Employment Commission and the complaints that they say have been pouring in from struggling constituents.
The commission has been swamped with an unprecedented number of benefits claims since measures intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus led to an enormous spike in furloughs and layoffs in mid-March. It has increased staffing, redeployed existing staff, upgraded phone lines and servers, and brought in a third-party call center to help deal with the historic demand. State officials have said the vast majority of eligible claims have been paid within two weeks.
Still, laid-off workers continue reporting persistent problems with benefits or reaching commission staffers for help with the bureaucratic process of filing. Many have turned to elected officials for assistance. The commission was hearing from so many lawmakers that it set up a dedicated intake email address, which has received over 10,000 individual constituent claims from legislative offices in a month, according to an email sent to lawmakers and shared with The Associated Press.
"Constituents are calling my office every day in dire situations — many have been waiting months for information about their case despite calling VEC every day. This can't wait any longer. Many Virginians could lose their housing, their savings, and their financial security if something doesn't change quickly," Del. Chris Hurst, a Democrat from Blacksburg, said in a statement.
Their letter was sent to Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess, signed by 34 members of the state House of Delegates and nine state senators. It described a series of problems the lawmakers said they have encountered. They include "inaccessibility of the VEC via phone or online, a lack of initial or follow up communication with claimants, the use of a complicated and outdated online system, and an overall lack of transparency with claimants throughout the process."
VEC spokeswoman Joyce Fogg said Hess has responded briefly to the letter and agency staff will work to provide a more detailed response "in the near future."
Commission officials held a call with reporters Thursday, which was not on the record. A written presentation gave an overview of efforts to reduce the backlog of claims and laid out reasons why applications might be rejected or delayed, such as someone entering the wrong social security number or refusing an offer to return to work.
Approximately 60,000 claimants' applications have been flagged for some type of error, resulting in an initial delay in benefits, according to the presentation.
The lawmakers' letter comes after Democratic U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin sent Hess a letter expressing similar concerns earlier this week.
The Thursday letter was signed only by Democrats, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, because it was only circulated among the House and Senate Democratic caucuses, according to an aide for Hurst.
But Republican lawmakers say they are also hearing from constituents about similar issues and have raised concerns with the commission and the governor's office.
Del. Kirk Cox said he hoped now that Gov. Ralph Northam's "own party is publicly recognizing the issue that something significant will change."
"Far too many Virginians are struggling and need help," he said in an emailed statement.
Sen. Bill DeSteph, who represents Virginia Beach, said his office has partnered with local TV stations to help citizens resolve VEC issues. He said his office is getting inquiries from as many as 250 people a day and he's personally hired two people to help deal with the calls and emails.
DeSteph said he's seen instances where the claimant who filed was totally ineligible for assistance. But in many other cases, he said, they just needed someone to spend "that extra minute and a half with the individual to find out exactly what the problem is and how to fix it."
Dr. Megan Healy, Northam's chief workforce development adviser, emphasized that the VEC has paid more than $6.2 billion in benefits since the start of the pandemic. All that has happened while dealing with changing federal government rules about the new benefits programs, an antiquated unemployment insurance program that was set for an upgrade and a staff that had dwindled in size during a previously strong economy, she said.
"We really care about those people and try to get the benefits out to them as best as possible," she said.