A state prison inmate mows grass on Capitol Square. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Leaders of the Virginia Employment Commission told state lawmakers Thursday they expect to meet the terms of a legal settlement that requires them to resolve 92,000 outstanding jobless claims by Labor Day.
But state delegates and senators sitting on the General Assembly’s unemployment oversight committee said their offices continue to face a deluge of complaints from residents struggling to reach the commission.
“My phone is burning up,” said Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake. “I mean, this is my whole time — we spend all day, every day.”
Lawmakers also complained that a special line set up aimed at making it easier to reach the commission did not appear to be helping. “I have called these numbers myself,” said Del. Candi King, D-Prince William. “It is not working.”
Ellen Marie Hess, who leads the employment commission, said she is continuing to add staff. “We’re doing the work to get folks on the phones to be able to talk to your constituents, but the truth of the matter is, they don’t really want to talk to anyone at VEC,” she said. “They want their benefits. So what we’re trying to do is get through the adjudications, and we are adding adjudicators just like we are adding folks to the phones.”
Members of the commission also asked Hess to provide regular updates documenting the commission’s progress at resolving the claims backlog and other customer-service functions. Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, observed that state leaders have traditionally focused on the balance of the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which primarily impacts business tax rates.
“This commission pays a lot of attention to the state’s pocketbook,” Hudson, a labor economist at UVA, said. “We need to pay additional and equal attention to how well this system is serving our constituents. So I hope going forward we won’t think of these constituent service metrics as an unusual addendum to the core presentation.”
Business groups raised their own concerns at the meeting, asking lawmakers to consider dedicating a portion of federal aid from the American Rescue Plan to head off a massive increase in payroll taxes that would otherwise be necessary to rebuild the fund that covers jobless benefits.
Virginia expects to receive $4.3 billion through the American Rescue Plan. The employment commission estimates it would take $1.3 billion to restore the unemployment trust fund to pre-pandemic levels and shield businesses from future payroll tax hikes.
In a joint statement last month, Gov. Ralph Northam and leaders in the House and Senate listed rebuilding the trust fund as one of four major priorities for the aid, alongside funding for public health programs, small businesses and public schools.
Nicole Riley, the state director of the National Federation for Independent Businesses, said the help would be welcome. “We hope, certainly, that can be a big priority from the General Assembly and governor’s office,” she said.
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