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Advocates urge Unemployment Commission to streamline processes

virginia employment commission building
(Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

As Virginia’s unemployment rate continues to rise, workers are having difficulty securing assistance. According to the latest numbers from the Virginia Employment Commission, more than 370,000 Virginians are relying on unemployment benefits. But advocates are raising concerns over a lengthy and complicated claims process. 

Thom Bartek was furloughed from his restaurant job in late March. He said he was getting unemployment payments, but they suddenly stopped last month.

“I didn't receive any notification like the payments are stopping,” Bartek said.“I received a note that there was an issue with my claim — that I had failed to return to work, but the business that I was furloughed from is still closed.”

Bartek said he had difficulty getting in touch with representatives from the state agency, and when he finally reached the VEC staff told him there was nothing he could do but wait. He said he’s calling on Governor Ralph Northam to issue an executive order to restore lost payments, and speed up the process. 

“If the VEC can't resolve a claim within 14 days, the issue is moot. People are being evicted, people are having mental health issues. This is creating a lot of anxiety,” Bartek said. “We're in an emergency right now, you’ve got to do something else. Relying on a system from 1985, it's just unacceptable.There needs to be a way to restore these benefits for people.”

Forty-three state legislators, including Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg), penned a letter to the VEC’s commissioner on Tuesday, urging the agency to streamline its processes and modernize online services. 

“My office has worked with countless individuals that have spent weeks, sometimes months, without receiving updates or resources,” Aird said. “Adding this uncertainty to the stress every family is already feeling as a result of this pandemic is just compounding the burden in a manner which we simply cannot ignore.”

In the letter, lawmakers said they are willing to support the VEC by setting aside more funds for staffing during future General Assembly sessions, and even suggested working alongside the VEC on policy proposals to improve its practices. They’re aiming to introduce those bills during an upcoming special session on August 18, or at the General Assembly’s regular session in 2021.

Legislators also called on the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, Virginia’s watchdog agency, to move-up its audit of the VEC’s functions. 

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