The agency has been under scrutiny for the past year and a half for a response that by some measures was among the nation’s worst to a surge in jobless claims due to the coronavirus pandemic. But cases like Ray’s, interviews with attorneys and state audits show the agency was plagued with a wide range of problems for years before the pandemic; they were simply brought to the forefront when hundreds of thousands of workers suddenly needed help. Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin campaigned on a promise to overhaul the agency, and Virginia Labor Secretary Megan Healy, who oversees it now, also says some problems are structural. She says the agency has long lacked sufficient resources thanks to a complicated federal funding formula that pays out less when the economy is strong and has also penalized the agency’s inefficiencies. Outside reviews have warned of problems going back nearly a decade, including major records-management issues, low staff morale and unclean facilities.
Three years later, Ray is fighting the Virginia Employment Commission in court as the agency tries to take the money back. It’s a case that, as Ray’s pro bono attorney sees it, illustrates the ethos of a radically dysfunctional agency. “Like the teacher who doesn’t like children and the librarian who doesn’t like books, this is an agency that doesn’t like the people that it’s supposed to serve,” said Hugh O’Donnell, who has done decades of unemployment compensation work. During the pandemic, the agency lagged in setting up certain benefit programs and allowed backlogs of cases to pile up, prompting a class-action lawsuit. An information technology modernization project eight years behind schedule exacerbated the situation, leaving claimants reliant on physical mail and call centers that a recent audit found were still only answering 12% of calls.
Virginia, which has relatively limited benefits, also has starkly low recipiency rates among the unemployed — with the third-lowest average rate in the nation over the past two decades, the audit found. “The system is just broken. There’s no other way to describe it,” said Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.
President Joe Biden’s administration has said the pandemic exposed longstanding challenges in the unemployment insurance system nationwide, and that it needs comprehensive reform. For Ray, the struggles with the agency began well before it was flooded with pandemic-related claims. Deaf since birth, Ray spent decades making complicated machinery at Bristol Compressors. During his shifts, he wore safety glasses, gloves, an apron and steel-toed boots that sometimes grew even heavier when soaked with leaking coolant, Ray said in an interview, with his niece interpreting.
A former colleague, David Woodring, called him a “gentleman” and honest “top-of-the-line guy” who never missed work and performed a job that required a great deal of skill. Ray made about $36,000 a year in his last year of work at the company, which closed despite receiving millions in taxpayer-funded incentives. Ray’s wages qualified him for $378 a week for 24 weeks, according to records in his case. Ray, who is 57 with worn hands and a big white beard, began receiving those benefits without issue, started looking for a new job and meanwhile drove about 30 miles (48 kilometers) each way to an employment commission office in Bristol to comply with the state’s weekly work-search documentation requirements. He didn’t have a computer to do the paperwork online.
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