In numbers: Virginia’s struggle to distribute unemployment benefits

By: - September 20, 2021 5:29 pm

Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Lawmakers on Monday got their second report from legislative auditors on the Virginia Employment Commission’s struggle to meet the massive demand for unemployment benefits amid the pandemic.

Here’s a look at some of the statistics and figures presented in the interim update by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which plans to wrap up its audit of the agency in November.

$930 million: The estimated value of incorrect payments made to claimants in 2020

Incorrect payments, nearly all of which were overpayments to claimants, are the result of errors made by the state and claimants filling out applications.

They also include fraudulent claims, of which the state estimates it has paid out a total of $70 million — a figure state auditors suspect will grow as they continue to review a backlog of another approximately 136,000 claims flagged for potential fraud.

The state is required to try to recover overpayments except in cases where a waiver is granted, which is an option in certain cases where the applicant isn’t at fault.

Secretary of Labor Megan Healy challenged the number, suggesting it is likely an overestimate and noting it includes claimants who were likely eligible for benefits but received payments through the wrong program.

100,000: the number of pending applications for benefits awaiting review

A class action lawsuit filed by claimants left waiting months for benefits led the state to expedite processing of 92,000 claims pending at the time of a May settlement.

The state met its Labor Day deadline, but in the meantime, another 100,000 claims requiring adjudication have piled up, auditors reported.

Auditors say the figure is current as of last month, but suggested the number will likely grow. They report an additional one million claims issues have yet to be reviewed and could ultimately require adjudication.

85: the number of call center staffers the employment commission had at the beginning of the pandemic

Auditors say that while the tenfold increase in applications received during the pandemic was unprecedented, the VEC entered the pandemic at a distinct staffing disadvantage.

The agency didn’t have enough staff to keep up with its pre-pandemic workload, said Lauren Axselle, a legislative auditor with JLARC.

She said the agency was also short adjudicators, with just 55 on staff, and had a limited IT staff.

14: the number of months into the pandemic it took the state to take significant steps to increase adjudication staffing

Auditors also say that in addition to entering the pandemic short staffed, it took more than a year for the agency to make significant headway in addressing the problem.

They noted that a majority of the 200 full time adjudication positions added during the pandemic were not created until 2021.

And outside contractors, who now represent most of the agency’s adjudication manpower, weren’t brought in until April, 14 months into the pandemic and after they were facing a lawsuit from claimants stuck in the queue.

12: the number of years the state has been working to modernize the software it uses to administer benefits

“And it remains incomplete,” noted Axselle.

She said the limited staff VEC did have was hampered by the 1985 computer system that runs the state’s unemployment insurance program and heavy reliance on paper documents.

The state has been working to update the system for 12 years — an unusually long timeframe for a technology project, auditors said, noting other states completed similar upgrades in between three and four years.

Axselle voiced concern about risks the agency faces when it tries to push the new system online next month. Among other things, she said the agency has not yet demonstrated it can accurately and completely convert UI data to the new system, there is no redundancy in case of a failure and that there is planned downtime of five to seven days, during which she said the public will be unable to file new or continuing claims.

4: the percentage of calls seeking help that were answered

The inability to get state staff on the phone to answer basic questions about the complex array of unemployment programs available has been a persistent complaint throughout the pandemic.

On that front, the state’s performance has actually gotten worse over the past year, according to auditors, who found the agency answered just 4 percent of the two million calls it received in June of this year, down from 6 percent of the 3 million calls received in June 2020.

Auditors noted that getting someone on the phone isn’t always that helpful, and that in some cases call center employees couldn’t answer common questions, such as when a case might be reviewed. And contract call center employees processing initial claims don’t have access to details about any existing claims.

2: the percentage of adjudications that meet state standards for timeliness

Under federal guidelines, issues with applications should be adjudicated within 21 days. On that front, Virginia has some of the worst performance in the country, meeting the standard in just 2 percent of cases.

And auditors observed that 82 percent of adjudications took longer than 70 days.

Zero: The number of state employees at outside agencies who responded to VEC’s request for temporary help.

This figure comes via Healy, the secretary of labor, who noted Thursday that the employment commission was initially limited in its efforts to bring on additional staff.

Under state personnel rules, the agency couldn’t unilaterally reassign employees from other agencies. But they did ask for volunteers.

Healy said there were no takers.

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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.