Virginia school bus drivers left in limbo as state demands they pay back unemployment benefits

‘How the hell am I going to come up with over $7,000 for the state of Virginia?’

By: - August 10, 2021 12:03 am

A school bus in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Thousands of school bus drivers around Virginia who turned to unemployment benefits to weather the pandemic are being asked to pay the state back — a financial demand drivers say has filled them with anxiety, stress and dread.

“How the hell am I ever going to come up with over $7,000 for the state of Virginia?” said Christina Riblett, a 41-year-old Fairfax County resident who has been transporting children for the local school district for almost a decade.

The dispute stems from a quirk in federal law that limits when school employees qualify for unemployment benefits, a rule that in normal times is aimed at preventing people whose work schedules include summers off from receiving benefits between terms.

But drivers and their advocates say the collection effort ignores the realities of both the pandemic and bus driving as a profession, in which many drivers work through the summer transporting children to summer school and other programs — nearly all of which were canceled last year.

The Virginia Education Association, which is representing the drivers in the dispute, had hoped that the General Assembly would take a step to address the problem during the ongoing special legislative session. But as of Monday, lawmakers had concluded the bulk of their work and no solution was forthcoming.

Instead, Virginia Secretary of Labor Megan Healy and a spokeswoman for the Virginia Employment Commission says the state will review each claim on a case-by-case basis.

“We are taking every bus driver case seriously and hopefully we’ll have it resolved soon,” Healy said.

She said some of the claims were clear cut: Drivers had been scheduled to work summer terms that were subsequently canceled and have documentation to that effect. In those cases, she expects the state to waive repayment. But she said other cases are more complicated.

Riblett falls into the clear-cut camp. She said she was signed up to drive special education students to summer school last year, but the semester was ultimately canceled. She says at her supervisor’s recommendation, she and other drivers applied for and began receiving unemployment benefits — money she described as a lifeline at an uncertain time.

“My husband was also furloughed and if it would not have been for the unemployment benefits, we would not have been able to pay our mortgage, buy ourselves groceries — just the basic essentials like keeping the lights on,” she said.

She says she stopped claiming benefits when the regular school year began again and she started receiving her salary. She assumed that was the end of it until late this winter when she received a letter from the employment commission demanding she pay back all the benefits she had received.

The Virginia Education Association estimates several thousand bus drivers are in a similar situation. “Hardworking school employees who legitimately lost income for cancelation of summer work are being required to pay VEC thousands of dollars,” said a spokesman for the group, Tom Allen, in a statement.

The state disputes that all of the school bus drivers who are being asked to repay the benefits were entitled to the aid in the first place.

Healy said some drivers who don’t typically work summers also applied for and received benefits. And she said some drivers applied and began receiving checks even as they continued to be paid by their local school district.

“They said they were making zero and they were still getting a paycheck,” Healy said. “I don’t like to use the word fraud, but that’s the term.”

Like Healy, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Employment Commission, Joyce Fogg, said the cases must be reviewed individually. “It will depend on the term of their contract, work history for number of summers worked,” Fogg said.

While the state works through the cases, bus drivers like Riblett say they feel like they’re living in financial limbo, uncertain how they’ll come up with the money the state has demanded from them.

Healy said her office has tried to communicate to drivers who are likely to receive repayment waivers via the school district that employ them. She said her message is not to stress because so far the state has “not collected a dime in overpayment.”

And she said even if an overpayment is determined to be the fault of the driver and must be repaid, she said the state does not garnish refunds or take other collections efforts as long as people who owe stick to a payment plan that can be as low as $10 a month.

Riblett, however, says it’s hard to relax about the situation when her first two appeals were denied.

“My only problem with this whole thing is that VEC has not on one occasion, not on two occasions, but on three separate occasions said, ‘No , we don’t care about your circumstances, we want our money back.’

“My faith in this waiver process being fair and impartial is nonexistent because they haven’t been fair and impartial this entire time.”

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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.