Virginia Employment Commission gets more time to respond to lawsuit over unemployment benefit delays

Virginia Politics

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Employment Commission has been granted more time to respond to a federal class-action lawsuit filed over delays at the agency overseeing the state’s unemployment insurance program. 

A motion for a delay was submitted Tuesday by those representing the defendant, VEC Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess, alleging the lawsuit had a broad scope and VEC’s council would need more time to review its claims.

The VEC asked for until May 28 to submit an official response but U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson ruled Wednesday that the VEC would have until May 11, only a four day extension from Friday’s original deadline.

On April 15, legal aid groups filed a class-action suit on behalf of five Virginia residents claiming the VEC has failed to give claimants proper assistance during the pandemic.

“In the interests of securing a just and speedy determination of Plaintiffs’ claims, this matter demands immediate attention. Delays in this particular case may well have concrete and immediate impacts on Virginians struggling to make ends meet during the global pandemic,” Hudson wrote in his order.

Hudson added the court was “sympathetic” to the VEC’s argument in the motion, “but the danger of prejudice to Plaintiffs militates against a twenty-one-day extension to file responsive pleadings.” In the end, he granted a delay until May 11.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers pushed back on the VEC’s bid for an extension, even poking fun at it, in their own motion Tuesday. 

“None of this is news to the Commonwealth, as Plaintiffs, their counsel, political leaders, the media and endless numbers of affected Virginians have been contacting the VEC for well over six months. Just Plaintiffs’ counsel alone have had multiple meetings and communications about this exact issue, and even provided the VEC the draft Complaint in advance of filing,” they wrote in opposition to VEC’s request.  

“And yet, in defense of a lawsuit premised on the allegation that the VEC cannot timely respond to Virginians seeking federal insured unemployment, the VEC suggests that it also cannot timely respond to them here.”

The class-action lawsuit, filed in federal court in Richmond, claims VEC has violated state and federal law for failing to promptly respond to those seeking benefits. It also cites months-long delays for people who had their benefits paused and are waiting for their cases to be heard, asserting the unemployment benefits program “has failed completely.” 

According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, over the first three months of the year Virginia ranks last in the nation in making determinations on cases within 21 days. Pressure on the VEC to reform how it processes claims and adjudicates cases has come from several angles, including a plea from U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) to Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission has been tasked with reviewing how the Virginia Employment Commission has processed unemployment insurance claims. The JLARC study, set to come Nov. 15, will examine the pandemic’s impact on VEC, the effectiveness of its response, how the employment commission administered the state’s unemployment insurance program.

It will also look into how VEC will modernize its IT program, a 12-year effort that resumed in April, according to JLARC’s executive director.

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

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