It’s bad enough losing your job without having to do battle with the state unemployment agency to get your much-needed jobless benefits. But many out-of-work Virginians have had to do just that, reporting website errors and hours-long phone delays while their unpaid bills kept piling up.

The Virginia Employment Commission’s slow response has created a great deal of frustration and anxiety in people already stressed out by the coronavirus pandemic.

To be fair, no one could have predicted than 677,749 (as of May 14) state residents would be filing for unemployment due to Gov. Ralph Northam’s mid-March coronavirus lockdown orders. We get it: VEC had almost no advance warning or time to ramp up operations and add needed personnel to deal with such a deluge.

On April 3, Gov. Northam acknowledged that the pandemic was “overwhelming” the state unemployment system. “People have had issues with our website,” he said, adding that VEC was upgrading its website and server capacity and increasing call center staff to handle the crush.

Most of those issues should have been resolved by now. Yet by mid-May, some state residents said they still hadn’t received their unemployment benefits weeks or even months after filing. Others told of waiting on the phone for hours to speak to a VEC employee—only to have their call dropped before they were connected.

Two months after the governor’s lockdown orders, this process should not be so difficult. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, about 13 percent of Virginia’s workforce has filed initial unemployment claims since March 15, when the lockdown began. But less than 8 percent of the unemployed who had made continued claims received their weekly benefits the week ending April 25.

“A number of unemployment claims have also not been processed, so we expect continuing claims to rise even as economic activity starts to rebound. Unfortunately, we do not expect an immediate return to pre-pandemic employment,” said Dominique Johnson, research associate at the Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy at Old Dominion University.

VEC’s clunky and confusing online application process needed a major overhaul long before the pandemic. Now it’s a necessity.

To add insult to injury, VEC announced last week that it had “accidentally” overpaid 35,000 people between $600 and $1,200 during the first round of checks it sent out to self-employed Virginians under the $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act. The agency says it will be recouping the overpayments by lowering their future payments.

When tens of thousands of people get more money than they’re entitled to, while others still haven’t received the benefits they deserve, something is seriously wrong with the system. And the fact that other states have had similar problems processing unemployment claims is no excuse.

When the governor forces people to stay at home, bungling or delaying the payment of unemployment benefits – the only financial lifeline for hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Virginians—is simply unacceptable.

As Andrew Ferguson recently wrote in The Atlantic, “No one should underestimate the devastating effects of technical incompetence.” Or the political consequences if VEC doesn’t get its act together.

The money for unemployment benefits comes directly from a tax on employers, who are required to file these taxes quarterly. If they miss the due date for any reason, they are assessed a $100 late filing penalty by VEC. But there’s no penalty for VEC if it’s late paying these same benefits to out-of-work state residents.

Maybe there should be.

The Free Lance–Star

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