Northam sets goals to fix unemployment delays as deal is reached in lawsuit: ‘Help is on the way’

Virginia Politics

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A deal is being finalized in a federal lawsuit aimed at ending long delays for unemployed Virginians with more complex cases. Meanwhile, Gov. Ralph Northam is setting new goals to resolve these issues.

The class action lawsuit, filed by several legal aid groups in April, claims the Virginia Employment Commission has “completely failed” tens of thousands of claimants and that the agency is violating laws requiring it to respond promptly. The case is seeking relief for those whose payments were cut off abruptly without an explanation and answers for people still waiting on an initial determination months after filing for assistance.

“Virginia is a national leader in getting unemployment benefits to eligible individuals, but it’s clear that complex cases must be resolved more quickly,” said Governor Northam in a statement.

About 70,000 people are still caught in the state’s backlog and it’s taking an average of two months to adjudicate each case, according to the Governor’s Chief Workforce Advisor Megan Healy.

Pat Levy-Lavelle, one of the attorneys involved in the class action lawsuit, said various groups have been calling on the state to take more steps to fix this issue since November. Now, he says they’re finally starting to see signs of change.

“The message of be patient, wait longer was no longer viable,” Levy-Lavelle said. “Now I think the tone has shifted as patience has run its course. People are hurting.”

Levy-Lavelle said a settlement is in the final stages. He expects the judge to release an order on Friday.

“To those people who have been waiting, you have been heard. Help is on the way,” he said.

Following talks on Tuesday, Gov. Northam came out with new commitments to speed up these cases, which account for about 4 percent of total applications. According to federal data cited in the lawsuit, Virginia is the slowest state in the nation when it comes to reviewing complex cases flagged for potential fraud or ineligibility.

With a price tag of $20 million, Northam signed an executive directive requiring the addition of 300 new adjudication officers using a private contractor, the temporary shifting of staff from other state agencies, various customer service improvements and the completion of a total system modernization by October 1, 2021.

Healy said, while the funding was allocated by the General Assembly earlier this year, the Northam Administration is setting new benchmarks. Specifically, Northam directed the VEC to increase the number of adjudications being processed per week from 5,700 to 10,000 by June 30 and to 20,000 by July 31, 2021.

The Legal Aid Justice Center said in a statement on Tuesday that the judge’s order will “tightly track” the specific plans listed in the Governor’s statement. “It will also require data sharing between the VEC and our team on a regular basis to ensure that progress is being made, and will require nearly all the cases currently waiting for adjudication be resolved by Labor Day,” wrote the group’s spokesperson Jeff Jones.

“I think that is realistic,” Healy said, though she couldn’t confirm the timeline being discussed in mediation.

Healy said Northam’s announcement was not a direct response to the settlement. Asked why these commitments are just coming out now, she said, “We’ve actually been working on this for a couple of months. It’s harder than you think when you’re hiring 300 outsiders of the agency.”

Healy said, in addition to extensive vetting required to protect the personal information of claimants, the hiring effort was put on pause in December when Congress passed another relief package.

“We had to put all our resources into that new Continued Assistance Act,” Healy said.

While the agency previously increased adjudication resources by shifting employees internally and through traditional hiring channels, Healy said this is the first time the VEC is using a private contractor to scale up staff. With around 100 officers working in this area right now, she said this is by far the largest staffing increase the VEC has executed during the pandemic focused on complex cases.

This is also the first targeted, comprehensive effort to recruit temporary staff from other state agencies, according to Healy, though they previously requested volunteers.

After upgrades to the 36-year-old computer system were put on hold due to the pandemic, Healy said the modernization plan will permanently improve the efficiency of the unemployment system.

“Our largest challenge is how do we communicate to Virginians around claims and so this modernization is going to be a lot better,” Healy said.

One of the biggest differences from a user perspective will be the ability to check for various updates online, rather than through the often-overburdened call center. For example, she said people will be able to check the status of their claim, review issues and change their personal information using a secure system.

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