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EDITORIAL: Still waiting for jobless benefits?

EDITORIAL: Still waiting for jobless benefits?

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IT HAS BEEN nearly nine months since Gov. Ralph Northam first instituted lockdowns and restrictions on businesses and other organizations throughout the commonwealth to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic that cost hundreds of thousands of Virginians their jobs.

During that time, two pharmaceutical companies participating in the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed have developed novel vaccines for the novel coronavirus – an unheard of scientific breakthrough, according to former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and one that could accelerate the time vaccines are developed and deployed in future pandemics.

Yet during those same nine months, the Virginia Employment Commission has been unable to process unemployment benefits for tens of thousands of Virginians who lost their jobs, resulting in the distinct possibility that some residents of the commonwealth could receive a vaccine before they get an unemployment check.

VEC claims that the threat of a class-action lawsuit was not the impetus to release a logjam of some 70,000 unemployment claims that were pending adjudication for months without resolution. But VEC also admitted that the backlog of such cases stretched back to July. It’s now December, and the checks are just now being sent out—a half year later!—to people who needed the money months ago.

VEC is also warning recipients that about 40,000 applications currently flagged for fraud would not be paid, and that ineligible people who submitted claims would be required to pay back all the money they receive, along with any costs, fees or interest accrued. But VEC could have done this same thing back in July instead of allowing claims to just pile up.

While thousands of unemployment checks were being delayed, VEC announced in May 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 said it would recoup the overpayments by lowering recipients’ future payments.

To be fair, the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and its calamitous effect on businesses created a surge of unemployment claims that VEC was unprepared to handle, with many frustrated out-of-work Virginians reporting website errors, confusing application questions, hours-long phone delays and dropped calls while their unpaid bills kept piling up.

VEC promised to upgrade its online system and increase its server capacity to free up staff to deal with flagged claims that required staff intervention.

But VEC has now had nine months to ramp up its operations and it’s still processing claims made back in July. As of Dec. 5, initial unemployment claims increased in the city of Fredericksburg, Culpeper, Spotsylvania and Stafford counties. Hopefully, these folks will get their checks before next July.

The money for unemployment benefits comes directly from a tax on employers, who are required to file them quarterly. If they miss the due date for any reason, they are assessed a $100 late filing penalty by VEC in addition to their regular payment.

But there’s no penalty for VEC for delaying benefits to out-of-work state residents, and no incentive to speed things up. Which is why in October, Virginia was ranked an embarrassing worst in the nation for processing unemployment claims that required staff review, as first reported by the Virginia Mercury.

When people who lost their jobs due to the governor’s executive orders don’t receive the unemployment benefits they are entitled to in a timely manner, being in last place is not just embarrassing, it is a colossal failure of government just when its services are needed most.

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