Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)
By Lisa D. Dance
The pandemic is “officially” over. But, like thousands of other people in Virginia, I’m still waiting to receive my full unemployment benefits from the pandemic. I’m lucky; I can cover my bills. I worry about the people who can’t pay theirs and have waited over a year for the unemployment benefits they are entitled to.
This week marks two frustrating anniversaries dealing with the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC). It has been two years since my initial online unemployment application was submitted and, due to an issue, could not be completed. It’s been six months since notification of my successful appeal. During this time, I’ve made countless calls to the VEC, endured a 15-month wait for my appeal hearing, and faced communication and technology dead ends.
As someone who works as a User Experience researcher, VEC’s ineffective communication and use of technology as a barrier has made the experience even more frustrating.
Caring about the human costs
No one has made a full accounting of the harmful impact the VEC delays have caused to actual people. There’s the woman battling breast cancer who waited two years for unemployment after being laid off, an Air Force veteran with PTSD who couldn’t reach VEC for months, the Richmond woman whose power was cut off temporarily while waiting for VEC benefits and many more who didn’t get a news story. I can only imagine the missed bills, maxed out credit cards, unfilled prescriptions, potential homelessness, hunger and other problems people owed benefits have faced.
The US Department of Labor statistics on unemployment benefits for March 2023 show the “Number of (Appeal) Cases Waiting over 360 days” for the VEC was 41,202. That’s 41,202 people whose necessities of life – food, mortgage, medical expenses, childcare, car payments – may remain unmet.
Continued failure to act in a timely manner
I appreciate VEC employees who worked hard to process the unprecedented number of claims during the pandemic. They were already dealing with the VEC being underfunded, understaffed, and in need of a long-delayed technology upgrade.
However, VEC’s previous leadership made a bad situation worse by delaying hiring more staff, ineffectively deploying contractors and telling people to keep calling the VEC, knowing most of the calls could not be answered.
Under new leadership, the VEC has made some changes but ranks last among states in the percentage of initial claims paid in 21 days and is next to last in handling lower level appeals. In March 2023, the average age of pending appeals was 427 days. Unfortunately, the time from filing my appeal to a hearing was 475 days.
Yet, earlier this year VEC asked the General Assembly to reduce the time someone could file an appeal from 30 to 15 days. Thankfully, that legislation was withdrawn. Then, the VEC began sending notices to dismiss appeals they said were not filed on time. At present, the VEC is still not handling claims or appeals in a timely manner.
Communication is still ineffective, technology is still used as a barrier
I received a letter from the VEC almost six months ago stating my appeal was successful, but it didn’t state what the next steps were. I called the First Level Appeals office and was directed to another department whose phone went unanswered or had a full mailbox over the span of several weeks.
When I called First Level Appeals again, I was given a phone number for the Customer Contact Center and instructed to request “the release of my funds” from them. The Customer Contact Center’s automated messaging encouraged me to use the online system to complete tasks, but none of the tasks related to actions to take after an appeal.
When I tried to reach an actual person, I went through a series of prompts including entering my Social Security number, only to hear a message stating the Customer Contact Center was unable to answer any questions about appeals. The automated voice then said “Goodbye” and hung up on me.
After that, I tried the VEC website. Neither the “VEC Online Services” nor “Information on the Appeals Process” page had information on what to do after a successful appeal. The “Frequently Asked Questions – Appeals” page said to contact the local office where your claim was filed (which didn’t apply to me) or call the Customer Contact Center. It’s a long loop of confusion and unanswered questions.
Changes and accountability needed
It’s baffling to me that tens of thousands of people have engaged in the VEC appeals process since the pandemic and yet there are no instructions on what to do after a successful appeal. How could such an obvious need for communication be missed at every touchpoint?
As the VEC continues to struggle, who is thinking about the most vulnerable Virginians who are due unemployment benefits and still have not received them? What is the VEC’s obligation to provide timely services? Who ensures the VEC complies? Who ensures the VEC’s processes, communication and technology are effective for the people who need to use them? We can only hope these questions will not also go unanswered.
Lisa D. Dance is a UX Consultant/ Founder of ServiceEase, a consultancy that helps businesses be easier to do business. Lisa’s background includes working with enterprises like Indeed and Genworth. She earned a B.A. in Political Science, a Post BA Certificate in Marketing, and an Interaction Design Specialization. As a public speaker, she gives talks on UX, AI, and Ethical Research topics.
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