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EDITORIAL: Small steps by VEC to help jobless aren't enough

EDITORIAL: Small steps by VEC to help jobless aren't enough

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PROGRESS is relative.

At one point since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the beleaguered Virginia Employment Commission was answering less than 3 percent of calls seeking assistance on unemployment benefits. Things are much better now. As of two months ago, a whopping 12 percent of calls were being answered.

Small steps, VEC. Small steps.

In the face of such “progress,” it is not surprising that the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission (JLARC) was unimpressed. A report last week spread the blame among Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, more than a decade of poor management within VEC and the pandemic itself.

In the report’s wake, the VEC has owned this colossal failure to Virginians in their time of need. Just kidding. It took responsibility like former President Donald Trump did for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

“I appreciate your recognition of the extremely dedicated public servants of the Virginia Employment Commission and the enormous volume of work that they produced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” VEC commissioner Ellen Marie Hess wrote after allegedly reading the report.

“Recognition” is not exactly the word an impartial reader might have used. It was more like an indictment. The JLARC report said, in part:

  • An IT upgrade, which was supposed to begin in 2009 and was scheduled to be complete by 2013 (and finally kicked in Nov. 15) was eight years behind schedule.
  • The department was understaffed even before the pandemic and that it was more than a year into the pandemic before serious steps were taken to increase staff, with Northam’s administration blocking some attempts.
  • The VEC depended far too much on manual data entry and paper.
  • And VEC’s leadership was often in the dark on how bad the situation was.

There are signs of improvement. For instance, Megan Healy, Virginia’s secretary of labor, claims the call time waiting period is now down to less than 2 minutes.

Still, why is the effort at fixing the system taking so long?

In a maddening disconnect, many needy and worthy petitioners were unable to receive what was rightfully theirs while the VEC was giving out incorrect payments to many who didn’t merit them.

It is estimated that $1.25 billion has been distributed incorrectly. (Healy disputes this, saying the number is “only” $87 million, but that only accounts for confirmed cases and not the extensive backlog, which at one time climbed to about 100,000.)

The VEC received about 2 million claims and paid out more than $14 billion in state and federal funds since the start of the pandemic. There is no doubt that the commission has had a steep hill to climb, with little help at times from the administration. One of JLARC’s recommendation is more hands-on leadership from the legislature.

The news isn’t all bad. The agency ranks sixth in the U.S. in getting checks out on time, as long as there’s no question about eligibility. However, when there is a question, the VEC ranks dead last, as of August, in resolving cases. From April of 2020 through June of 2021, Virginia resolved 5 percent of such cases within three weeks. The national average: 48 percent.

Things are better at the VEC. Three hundred more people have been hired since spring to handle inquiries. There is at last a 21st century IT system.

However, foot-dragging and inefficiency turned the coronavirus epidemic into a long-running financial crisis for thousands of Virginians.

In a state that prides itself on efficient government, that is not the kind of “recognition” anyone should want.

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