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VEC head says unemployment benefits backlog is nearly done

VEC Commissioner Carrie Roth speaks at a podium as Delegate Ware enters a room
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
VEC Commissioner Carrie Roth gives a presentation on Tuesday, July 18, 2023 at the Pocahontas Building in Richmond, Virginia.

The Virginia Employment Commission was inundated with claims in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns.

The head of Virginia’s unemployment system updated legislators Tuesday, saying there had been significant progress in eliminating numerous state benefits backlogs. Advocates and constituents said the Virginia Employment Commission was still falling short and even questioned its methods.

During the pandemic, the Virginia Employment Commission was inundated with claims in the wake of lockdowns. A review of the VEC by the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said it had “deficient staffing levels, antiquated UI IT system, performance monitoring, and oversight.”

Commissioner Carrie Roth told the Commission on Unemployment Compensation, a bipartisan group of delegates and state senators, that VEC had eliminated its adjudication backlog and its potential fraud case backlog. She also said that its first-level appeals backlog had been reduced by 33% since November.

Adjudication is when the VEC makes a decision on whether an applicant is eligible for unemployment benefits, which can then be appealed.

Advocates and constituents said there needs to be more progress.

“They need to be better and do better because change needs to come. And that's just not coming quick enough,” said Glenda Brown, a Virginia Beach resident who said she was awaiting VEC correspondence. “To me, the system is worse now than ever before. They need to get it together.”

Flannery O’Rourke from the Virginia Poverty Law Center raised questions over VEC’s attempt to eliminate 25,743 late appeals at once, pointing to emails she said she obtained via an open records request.

“This late appeal dismissal plan was not a shortcut. It was short shrift,” said O’Rourke, who said there were internal concerns about the plan’s legality. “All the while, claimants and employers are still waiting.”

“Eliminating the hearing and deciding cases based only on a review of the file will put the agency out of conformity with the Social Security Act and Violate the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment,” VEC's Susan Batte wrote in a Dec. 28 memo to Roth.

In March, Roth said the federal Department of Labor reversed a decision to eliminate the appeals, later saying they couldn’t be eliminated.

According to documents provided by O’Rourke, a USDOL unemployment specialist emailed a VEC employee in January that the VEC could implement its process. Then in March, a USDOL official said the department had not approved VEC’s plan.

O’Rourke said VEC left out key information in its correspondence with USDOL.

Roth said that 72,000 first-level appeals and claims remain as of Tuesday, 65,844 of which are first-level appeals. She told VPM News that was a sign of progress.

“The appeals escalated in direct correlation to the number of decisions that we made because of the backlog and so it's the final part of the process,” she said.

Updated: July 19, 2023 at 10:23 AM EDT
This article has been updated to specify how many VEC appeals are first-level.
Jahd Khalil covers local government, the economy and labor issues for VPM News. Previously, he covered state government for RadioIQ and was a freelance journalist based in Egypt.