Pandemic unemployment programs ending Saturday in Virginia

Virginia Politics

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-Several pandemic unemployment programs authorized by Congress are expiring this weekend.

According to the Virginia Employment Commission, Sept. 4 marks an end to the $300 boost to weekly payments and extended benefits for people who have run out of regular state unemployment. A program expanding eligibility to gig workers and the self-employed will also be terminated. 

Chenita Walker, a single mother from Norfolk, is one of roughly 60,000 Virginians being impacted. 

Walker has been filing for unemployment since she was laid off from her driving jobs with Uber and Lyft in August of 2020. She doesn’t qualify for regular unemployment with that job history but, even if she did, she would’ve exhausted her eligible weeks already. 

“A lot of people are already struggling, even on these programs,” Walker said in a zoom interview from a motel, where she’s staying with her son. “This to me has been traumatic because of my health and my child. It’s coming to days we can’t eat…like how do you decide who can eat?”

Republican governors in other states ended the $300 federal enhancement weeks ago amid widespread staff shortages. 

However, advocates fear the end of these programs–coupled by a loosening of eviction protections–could be devastating as the delta variant causes continued uncertainty. 

Virginia’s Secretary of Labor Megan Healy said the state will continue to offer support services, including rent relief, food assistance and free community college. They’re also hosting about 30 job fairs in the coming weeks, according to Healy. 

“We’ve seen increasing wages like we’ve never seen before because of the stress on businesses trying to hire back workers. Some of the employers have increased their benefits, which is great and also are providing more flexible schedules,” Healy said. 

As these safety nets expire, thousands with more complex claims are anxiously waiting for issues to be resolved before receiving benefits. 

The expiration date comes just ahead of a court-ordered deadline following a class action lawsuit. 

By Labor Day, the VEC is expected to clear a backlog of more than 92,000 more complex claims on the books in May, according to Healy. 

The lawsuit represented claimants whose payments were abruptly cut off, as well as those facing long wait times for an initial eligibility determination.

“They are required to do 20,000 adjudications per week and they have been hitting that every week and doing more,” Healy said. 

However, Healy said it’s still taking an average of two months to complete the first round of adjudications in these cases. She said that’s about half the time it was taking earlier in the pandemic but still well above the 21-day federal standard for these types of cases. 

Further complicating matters is the fact that more issues have been added to the queue since the settlement was reached. 

“There is probably like 10,000 similar to the lawsuit but if you think about all of the adjudications the VEC is working through it is tens of thousands,” Healy said. 

Walker is hoping to see roughly $6,000 in back pay. She said her benefits were abruptly cut off in June of 2021 due to document uploading issues and she has no idea when the problem will be resolved. 

“I’m a prime example that they have not fixed the problem,” Walker said. “This should not happen in this day and age. Their systems should’ve been updated a long time ago.”

Even after these federal programs expire, the VEC says valid claims stalled in the system will be paid out for all weeks of unemployment ending on or before the date of termination. 

Healy said a system modernization going live Oct. 1 will speed up the adjudication process by getting more information from the claimant on the front end. She said it will also give call centers more access to data on individuals to improve customer service.

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