Just a few weeks ago, the Virginia Employment Commission launched a new appointment system that it said would help clear up a backlog of unemployment claims.
Almost immediately, all available appointments were booked, leaving many Virginians still without help.
“We were very, very pleased to see that there was finally a door opening at the VEC,” Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, told The Virginia Mercury. “But it appears that it was a very small door, and it appears that it has already shut.”
Newman and others were concerned that so many of the appointment slots went to unemployed residents in the state’s most populous areas, leaving those in rural and outlying areas no better off than before — in what some saw as an unfair distribution of resources.
More recently, a state official investigating the VEC’s problems reported that, despite the high hopes for the agency’s new phone-based system, only a “small portion” of calls for aid were being answered.
The VEC continues to face other problems, Lauren Axselle of the Joint Legislative and Review Commission told legislators.
One of those is a new trouble that springs directly from the original, underlying problem: Overworked and stressed out by the high demand, many VEC employees are quitting — even as the agency tries to increase its staffing numbers.
JLARC also warned that the VEC’s antiquated computer system, which helps people track their unemployment claims, may be at risk of shutting down as the agency transitions to a better system.
JLARC, the review and investigations arm of the General Assembly, has been looking into complaints about the VEC going back to this time last year. Because of the depth and breadth of the VEC’s deficiencies, the commission is deviating from its usual procedures. It is advising the VEC on remedies even before its final report is due, based on its emerging discoveries.
An interim report is planned for September and the full report is due in November, in time for lawmakers to digest its contents and formulate possible legislative solutions.
JLARC is recommending that the VEC work with the same private company that helped the Virginia Department of Health manage its heavy volume of calls during the past year of the pandemic. As of this writing, a contract with the company was being reviewed.
The VEC already had expanded its call centers, but — as lawmakers learned last week — it still is not keeping up with demand.
The VEC’s problems still seem to revolve around the most difficult unemployment cases. The agency has had a fairly good record of answering simple claims, but has become bogged down in researching and resolving those in which work history or some other detail was unclear or in dispute.
Meanwhile, the agency is losing staff even as it seeks to hire more workers. It already needed to find additional staff — and now it must hire replacement staff as well. Surely, time is lost in the need to hire and train all these new workers — time that could be spent on resolving claims if veteran, trained staffers could remain in their jobs.
Even a piece of good news comes with a caveat: With the help of a private contractor, the VEC has reached a goal set by Gov. Ralph Northam to clear 10,000 cases a week. But the improvement in speed apparently has come, at least to some degree, at the sake of accuracy.
It’s clear that the VEC is making some progress — but also clear that such progress is inadequate to meet the need. It is to be hoped that the review commission’s current guidance can rev up the VEC’s speed, accuracy and responsiveness. Virginians are suffering under the agency’s delays, and that is not an acceptable state of affairs.