Amy Pereschuk was one of about 625,000 workers in Virginia who lost their jobs in Virginia during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And she soon was one of many who were struggling to collect the unemployment benefits they were due.
“I can never reach a person to talk to,” Pereschuk said in early May. “It feels like a full-time job just trying to figure this out.”
At that time, the 41-year-old Boonsboro, Md., resident had been trying to connect with the VEC since April, when she lost her job as a project manager in Sterling. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Pereschuks’ online application contained an error, and it took over three weeks of no benefits to finally prompt her to make an inquiry.
After that discovery, Pereschuk said another roadblock occurred when the VEC told her it had to verify her previous work history in Maryland from two years ago before a payment could be issued. It took several more weeks for the verification to be made and for Pereschuk to receive a payment.
“Everything was finally approved on June 17 and I received all my back pay,” said Pereschuk. “But I still have questions, and I’m still getting nowhere.”
Pereschuk said since receiving her payment, she has had minor follow-up questions, but hasn’t been able to reach anyone though the VEC toll-free number. She’s also been unsuccessful connecting with anyone through the live chat option on the VEC website.
“I was on the phone for hours and never got to speak to anyone,” said Pereschuk. “I’m just grateful for what I was given so far, and I hope I can find another job before any of this matters. It’s really a horrible process to go through.”
Pereschuk was not alone. The staggering numbers of claims, coupled with a dated and cumbersome VEC website, excessive wait times on the telephone, or being cut off abruptly after extended on-hold periods, brought many seeking unemployment benefits to internet forums to voice their frustrations.
Joyce Fogg, communications manager for the VEC, said COVID-19 has indeed tested her organizations’ capabilities to their limits, forcing the commission to add extra manpower, update its website and make other adjustments to better serve hundreds of thousands of Virginians seeking financial relief.
“We have updated the phone system twice, hired more people in call centers at South Boston and Grundy, and a third party is handling [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] for workers who are not eligible for traditional unemployment benefits,” said Fogg.
Fogg said her organization has processed over 850,000 claims since March, and 75 percent of those claims have been paid out.
“The 25 percent that haven’t been paid out have some kind of issue,” said Fogg.
According to Fogg, reasons for non-payment include customers not filing their weekly certification, not being able or available for work, refusing an offer for suitable work or failing a drug test.
“There are some valid reasons people may refuse work—they may have to deal with health issues or child care—and if so, all they have to do is appeal that, but you’ve got to wait,” Fogg said. “Your benefits will stop until that appeal is heard and a determination is made.”
Fogg said many people may also be hesitant to return to low-paying jobs due to the extra $600 they receive each week through the CARES Act. That added benefit, provided by the federal government, is set to expire at the end of July.
“If you were qualified for $200 a week in unemployment … you get $600 on top of it, so you get $800 a week, or, if you get the max of $378, you get $978,” said Fogg.
Fogg, said the Virginia Workforce Connection website has more than 400,000 available jobs now, and said those who fail to report to work might not be able to find a job when they are ready to come back.
“My suggestion is, if your employer calls you back, go back,” said Fogg.
A link has been added to the VEC website for employers to report employees who fail to report to work, but there are additional consequences.
“If they were asked to go back to work, their benefits are going to stop until someone has reviewed the case to see if there’s a reason for it,” said Fogg. “If they say they’re sick, or they want to take care of their children, those have to go through administrative hearings.”
According to Fogg, VEC call centers handled over 46,000 calls just last week, and extra help has been brought onboard to help with administrative hearings to sort out the details of challenged claims.
“Our people are working seven days a week to try to get people paid as fast as we can,” said Fogg.
Fogg said a large number of calls lately are inquires related to the third part of the CARES Act—Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation—which provides an additional 13 weeks of payments after available unemployment benefits have been exhausted.
“Those people who have exhausted their benefits will be notified by text message with a link,” said Fogg. The link is also available at the VEC website, where instructions for an application to receive the extension are also provided.
Last week, the VEC reported unemployment claims in Virginia were down again from the previous week. For the filing week ending June 20, 25,293 initial claims were filed, 1,893 fewer than the previous week.
The weekly total was the lowest since before the initial spike in unemployment insurance claims during the week of March 21.
Continued claims totaled 375,579, down 11,314 from the previous week, but 355,910 higher than the 19,669 continued claims from the comparable week last year.
James Scott Baron:
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