VIRGINIA, USA — With COVID cases increasing and the country entering month six of the pandemic, many are worried about unemployment benefits that still haven't arrived.
“I’m at my wits' end," Michael Jones said.
He was furloughed from his job as the general manager for Amphora Diner Deluxe near the beginning of the pandemic.
Jones said his benefits ran out last week, and he hasn't been able to get a response from the Virginia Employment Commission about how to extend them.
But, he said the problems with unemployment benefits began from the moment he first applied.
“It was quite difficult, the non-responsive answers," Jones said. "There’s no work out there, so it came to light quickly to me in June that my funds are going to run out… We had to make conversations with the Virginia Employment Commission to receive extended benefits. That was a process that has now been going on for the last two weeks with no resolution in sight.”
The Q and A team brought his -- and other viewer -- questions to the Virginia Employment Commission and Dr. Megan Healy, the governor's chief workforce advisor.
Question: What is causing the delay in processing claims and providing answers?
Answer: A spokesperson for the VEC attributes the delay to the overwhelming number of claims submitted and lack of staff at the beginning of the pandemic.
She said from mid-March through the beginning of July, the VEC received 906,734 claims -- the same amount the commission received during a five year period pre-COVID (March 2015-March 2020).
Dr. Megan Healy said claims have increased from the first week of June to this past week of July by nearly 14,000.
The VEC said about 25% of the claims they process get flagged with issues. The minor mistakes, like a typo in a name or address, are investigated by the Fact Finding Investigations team, which she said now only has four to five people in total.
Meanwhile, Jones said he's been trying to get ahold of the office to find out where his claim stands, and hasn't been able to get through.
“They go 'due to the unprecedented volume, we cannot answer your call. Try calling back later.' There’s no message. They click, they hang up," he said.
Question: Why is there a backup at the call center, and what is the state doing to fix it?
Answer: Dr. Healy said when the pandemic started, the call center only had 86 people working there. Now, she said it is up to 487 employees and 15 local offices, which, in total, can take more than 60,000 calls a week.
She said they are also searching for another call center to help.
Question: Why haven't some people received the additional $600 in federal pandemic unemployment compensation? And, what can they do to try and procure it?
Answer: "The $600 additional benefit (Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation) to the weekly benefit amount was in place from March 29 to July 25," Dr. Healy said. "Because payments come after [a] week certification of wages, this will be the last week the $600 is added to the weekly benefit. Congress will need to pass a bill to add any additional money to the $378 maximum weekly benefit amount in Virginia. It depends on when the person was actually out of work to know if this person qualifies this week for the extra $600. The monetary benefit documents received in the mail would let this person know about the $600 extra availability."
Jones said even with the government help, he's barely been making ends meet the last few months.
“To hear Congress and various other politicians say this is an incentive for people not to work, that is just outrageous," Jones said. "With the amount of money that I’m receiving, I’m covering just my bare expenses…I’m blowing through my private savings right now and it’s running out fast…The fact remains that I’m in an industry that may not survive.”
Question: What can people who have stopped receiving benefits or who haven't heard from the employment office do?
Answer: "The first thing people should do is read all the documents and check their accounts to make sure all information is correct," Dr. Healy said. "Individuals need to certify their wages every week or no benefits will be distributed. When a full claim is denied because of separation issues, the claimant will be put in the appeals process which may take weeks to hear from a deputy. The call center does not have information on where a person is in the appeals process. With the reduction in weekly initial claims and the increase in more staff, more Virginians are getting through the call centers."
Congress has until tomorrow to pass a stimulus bill to extend the additional $600 federal pandemic unemployment benefit, but it is not expected to do so.