The Virginia Employment Commission told a federal court on Thursday that it has made significant progress in resolving an enormous backlog of unemployment benefits claims filed by Virginians during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But more work still needs to be done to speed up the process, according to a separate court filing by several legal aid groups that sued the VEC in April over alleged failures to pay benefits to many unemployed Virginians.
The number of unpaid unemployment claims still being adjudicated by the VEC stood at 39,925 as of the week that ended last Saturday, the agency said in a mandatory report submitted to the U.S. District Court in Richmond on Thursday.
That was down from 92,158 unpaid claims awaiting review as of May 10.
The legal aid groups that filed the lawsuit said in a separate filing that they “commended” the VEC for making progress but questioned whether the numbers reported are an accurate reflection of the current backlog.
The groups said it is “likely that at least 30,000 new claims have been added” to the VEC’s adjudication backlog since May 10, making the number still to be resolved much higher than reported to the court.
“While our organization is pleased to see some positive outcomes for needy Virginians as a result of our lawsuit, we remained concerned that the number of Virginians having problems accessing needed unemployment benefits remains unacceptably high,” Steven Fischbach, litigation director for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said in a statement issued Thursday. The organization filed the lawsuit with four other legal advocacy organizations and law firms.
Given the VEC’s progress to date, the agency said in the court filing that it had hoped the legal aid groups would file a joint status report.
“Although we provided a draft of this report and asked for comments, the [legal aid groups] have indicated their desire to file a separate report. Despite ongoing regular updates and two in-person meetings between the VEC and [legal aid groups], it is not clear to the [VEC] what disputed matters, if any, exist,” according to the court document signed by Virginia Employment Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess.
A VEC spokesperson could not be reached for comment on the status report.
The class-action lawsuit was filed in April in federal court in Richmond on behalf of five plaintiffs. The lawsuit alleged the VEC violated the rights of Virginians who applied for benefits but got no response or faced lengthy delays in adjudicating their claims. The plaintiffs also alleged that their benefits were abruptly cut off.
A settlement agreement reached in May gives the VEC until Labor Day — Sept. 6 — to resolve 95% of the more than 92,000 unpaid claims.
The VEC was overwhelmed by more than 1.6 million claims for unemployment benefits — more than the previous 10 years combined — as businesses across the state closed because of the pandemic.
In its status report to the court, the VEC said it has made progress in hiring additional staff to resolve unemployment claims. The agency said it brought on 100 contract adjudicators as of June 14 and expects to add 100 more by July 19.
“The VEC continues to recruit and interview for hearing officer positions,” the agency said. “Further, the VEC is utilizing contract staff to perform adjudication work.”
The legal aid groups said Thursday that the VEC had identified 4,189 additional claimants whose benefits had remained illegally cut off because of issues that arose between March 14, 2020, and June 22, 2020.
“While the VEC — in response to the lawsuit — restarted these payments on June 15, 2021, the damage to jobless Virginians caused by having to wait over a year for these emergency relief payments to resume is significant,” the groups said in a statement.
The legal aid groups said two other areas have been identified “where payments appear to have been illegally cut off by the VEC to large numbers of Virginians.” Those are cases where claimants have been asked to complete a proof-of-identity process and cases where they have been asked to provide proof of employment.
“We are pleased that the court’s intervention has moved things forward, with folks at the VEC working hard on progress,” said Pat Levy-Lavelle, attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, one of the legal advocacy organizations that filed the suit.
“At the same time, we want to move toward cases being processed more quickly, and Virginians who have been getting benefits no longer being cut off without due process,” she said. “There is much more work to do.”