CHESTERFIELD, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Employment Commission instructed employees to handle records that included people’s sensitive and personal information while at home, according to a former employee and a spokesperson for the agency. The same employee says staff was then expected to return the documents to the office for further evaluation.
This admission from the beleaguered agency follows new accusations from Celena Jones, a former employee, instructed to work overtime at home and process documents that included people’s social security numbers, birthdays, home addresses, workplaces, salaries, online passwords and other personal information.
Jones worked for the Virginia Employment Commission from September through December 2021 and recently told 8News in Richmond that she and her colleagues working on “first-level appeals“ were instructed to take home personal information related to claimants and write social security numbers on the top of each page; a practice used while the agency transitioned to a new online system.
“Anybody could have written somebody’s name, photocopied something,” Jones told 8News.
The latest revelation about the VEC’s handling of sensitive material follows an 8News investigation into the situation after a Henrico woman discovered she was inadvertently sent a 90-page document dump from the VEC that included all or partial social security numbers for 16 people across several states.
When pressed last week on how this incident occurred, VEC Commissioner Carrie Roth repeatedly dodged 8News questions. A spokesperson for Governor Youngkin’s office later said, “As is the procedure, VEC simply uploads these documents from the vendor.”
After seeing 8News reports on the VEC’s handling of personal information, Jones said she is not surprised that it happened, saying that the VEC did not explicitly instruct employees charged with handling initial-level claims and appeals to meticulously review every page they were sent from external organizations, like legal teams or employment verification groups.
“We were supposed to, like, quickly thumb through it [documents sent from outside groups], but not, like, read and find out what’s going on,” Jones said.
Jones said similar work was conducted in the office, however, her concerns primarily focus on why the VEC told employees to handle these documents in an unsupervised fashion.
“I didn’t leave them out anywhere, but I was afraid of that,” Jones said, adding that she put documents in her car’s trunk while going to and from work.
“I always put it in my trunk, and it was secure there. But if you were to break into somebody’s car, wouldn’t you check the trunk?” she said.
In a statement sent to 8News, VEC Spokesperson Joyce Fogg said all staff “Are background checked and trained on security procedures, to include protecting customer information. Other employees that are home-based, do have access to customer information and as trusted agents of the Commission are required to adhere to security protocols.”
Fogg said employees were instructed, “To take work home … for a limited time during the pandemic.” However, “Those administrative activities were discontinued last year.”
Jones also said that once the responsibilities of handling documents were complete, staff were told to compile the information into bins, and place them inside an office cubicle for another employee to pick up.
“I wish they would put the documents in a locked room, at least, not just sitting out in a cubicle,” Jones said.
Fogg responded to Jones’ comment about access to documents sitting in a cubicle, saying, “In regard to the VEC facilities, all work areas with sensitive information are secured and the agency has a robust array of security protocols to ensure items are physically secured and protected.”
The private document dump sent to a Henrico woman is not the only example of the VEC sharing information with the wrong person.
“If I have somebody else’s information, who has mine?” Susan Bailey asked, after describing the puzzling find in the mail.
In the time since the VEC launched a new online system, Fogg said, “We are expanding our use of claimant ID numbers in lieu of Social Security Numbers where possible.”
“This will be another layer of security to protect our customer information. However, we are required to collect and use Social Security Numbers for certain activities, and as such, we will not be able to completely eliminate their use.”