Virginia says it will stop cutting off unemployment benefits without investigations

By: - December 11, 2020 10:28 am

Virginia just launched its new Office of the Children’s Ombudsman, aimed at overseeing the state’s child welfare system. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Facing the threat of a class-action lawsuit, Virginia officials said this week they will stop halting unemployment benefits after they’ve been started without first conducting a review.

The Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center says the decision means payments will resume for thousands of unemployed Virginians who had their benefits cut off after, for instance, an employer disputed their eligibility for benefits or reported they refused a job offer.

“The policy until now has been that a mere report by a former employer would trigger the Virginia Employment Commission to cut off someone’s benefits,” said Pat Levy-Lavelle, a lawyer with the center that has been representing people seeking jobless benefits. “Whereas now a report puts a case on list for adjudication but doesn’t in and of itself trigger cutoff of benefits.”

The Virginia Employment Commission has struggled to keep pace with a flood of applications for jobless benefits since the coronavirus pandemic began. U.S. Department of Labor data shows Virginia is slower than any other state in the country when it comes to reviewing eligibility issues.

The agency is still reviewing applications filed in July and in a letter announcing their decision Thursday, officials said they had 74,000 claims pending adjudication.

The change will only help some of the people in that backlog: People whose benefits had begun but were later stopped. It’s not immediately clear exactly how many people fall into that category, but the Legal Aid Justice Center estimated the figure is in the tens of thousands.

The new approach came after the Legal Aid Justice Center wrote the agency in late November warning that the agency’s approach violated federal and state law, which states claims can only be stopped if they will be investigated within the week. They said they were prepared to file a class-action lawsuit if the VEC didn’t change its practice.

Virginia ranks worst in nation for quickly reviewing some unemployment claims

In a letter, VEC Deputy Commissioner William Walton warned the change means more claimants will receive overpayments, which they will later be required to pay back. Levy-Lavelle acknowledged the issue, but said he believed the new approach will ultimately help.

“I think a lot of people are just trying to survive day to day and I think having the money will be helpful to them,” he said. “I actually think a lot of these folks will end up being qualified. I know in the past that here’s been a suggestion most of these folks will end up disqualified. I think that’s an incorrect perception.”

He noted there are valid reasons for refusing job offers that need to be considered before halting benefits, including the suitability of the work and the capacity of the applicant to take the job offer given school closures and childcare issues caused by the pandemic.

He called the change a victory for “Virginians struggling with unemployment.”

“We’re pleased that the Virginia Employment Commission has recognized the problem and acted to fix it.”

A spokeswoman for the commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.