The huge spike in the number of jobless claims has flooded Virginia’s unemployment system, frustrating laid-off workers trying to file for benefits.
“This is overwhelming our unemployment system,” Gov. Ralph Northam said during his news briefing Friday. “People have had issues with our website.”
To help address the problems, Northam said plans call for upgrading the Virginia Employment Commission’s website that handles the state’s online claims filing system, expanding server capacity and boosting the call center staff by 20%.
The agency also plans to bring in an outside contractor to handle the more routine calls about unemployment insurance benefits, said William Walton, the state’s director of unemployment insurance.
Doing so, Walton said, would free up more time for the regular call center employees to handle more complex claims.
“The infrastructure is there,” Walton said Friday. “We know that the system may be slow on the internet in processing claims or the contact [call] center has wait times. ... But the system is there and functioning, and we are seeing claims in record numbers.”
Walton noted that the state’s unemployment system normally handles a couple hundred claims on a daily basis. Now, it’s handling thousands of claims a day, he said.
The commission reported Thursday that 112,497 initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits were filed for the week ending March 28 — more than double the number of claims filed the previous week.
The number of jobless claims filed in the last two weeks of March has exceeded the total figures for all of 2019 as efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus are taking a toll on the state’s economy.
Northam said Friday that jobless claims are expected to accelerate in the coming weeks.
The influx in claims has caused issues.
“The surge that we’re experiencing, it’s certainly taxing our system,” Walton said.
For instance, laid-off workers calling the state’s toll-free number to set up claims either can’t get through or wait for hours on hold.
The online reporting system, which the state tells applicants that they should use to file their claims, is showing stress. The VEC website says the online claims filing system is operational, even though it was not sending confirmation numbers to claimants.
“Claims are being received and we are working on fixing the problem,” the VEC website said.
Another issue that is taxing the VEC’s system is new coverage provisions in the newly enacted federal CARES Act, or the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
The federal stimulus plan will force Virginia to implement “significant changes” to state computer systems in order to get payments to individuals. The new law provides unemployment benefits to workers who are not normally eligible under current state law for the benefits, including gig economy workers and the self-employed, according to the VEC.
Much of the claims filed in recent weeks are coming from employees working in service-related industries, such as restaurants, hotels and hair salons.
“There are indications that layoffs are broadening to affect a wider range of industries,” the VEC said Thursday.