THIS HAS been a giddy year for Virginia progressives. Capital punishment has been abolished. Marijuana has been decriminalized. The state has instituted its own voting rights act. There are more civil rights protections for LGBTQ residents. It’s a little harder to buy a weapon on a moment’s notice. And we’ve gone further than most states to rein-in gerrymandering.
However, if “progress” is part of progressive, there is an area where the Old Dominion has made no headway at all. In fact, we seem to be stuck in reverse.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there is one category in which Virginia occupies the national caboose: the time it takes to settle unemployment claims that require staff review or investigation.
At the end of last year, the Virginia Employment Commission staff had settled a pitiful 4.1 percent of those type of claims within three weeks, which is the maximum time the feds say the process should take. This placed us dead last among all states.
In the first three months of 2021, things changed—for the worse. The VEC now resolves 2.4 percent of problematic claims within three weeks. Needless to say, we’re still mired in last place.
The average wait time for benefits in staff-reviewed cases is a staggering 247 days. Some needy people languish for more than a year. Some, no doubt, just give up.
Granted, in the midst of a pandemic, times are tough all over. The VEC, even at its relatively leisurely pace, has handed out more unemployment benefits than in the last 10 years combined.
However, every state is dealing with this. Why is Virginia doing it so badly?
In an effort to play catch-up, the state is negotiating with a private vendor to add 100 workers, which would roughly double the staff size. That’s a step in the right direction, but a baby one. In February, Maryland, a state only about 70 percent as populous as Virginia, brought on 300 additional adjustors.
The Legal Aid Justice Center and other legal aid groups have filed a class-action suit against the VEC, claiming that this foot-dragging violates federal and state law, in addition to the due process guarantees in the Constitution. They seem to have a pretty good case.
There are explanations/excuses: The pandemic. Outdated technology. Not enough employees. Complicated applications. However, these same reasons could be given in just about any state. Why are we lagging Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia or any of the other usual suspects when it comes to bad or uncaring governance?
A progressive tsunami by the General Assembly has made Virginia seem like a forward-looking state eager to shed its Old South image.