RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- The General Assembly has endorsed several improvements to the state’s unemployment system as the coronavirus pandemic continues to exacerbate its flaws.

Throughout the last year, lawmakers have been bombarded with complaints from constituents frustrated with the Virginia Employment Commission. Those concerns are still coming in but many of the reforms being discussed this session won’t take effect for months.

Revisiting modernization, expanding call center staff

By this summer, the VEC is expected to get a $15 million face-lift. The funding proposal in the state budget will allow the agency to revisit a modernization effort that was previously supposed to be done by the summer of 2020.

“Because of the pandemic we had to stop all plans for that modernization and go back to the old IT system that was built on a 1985 mainframe,” said Megan Healy, Gov. Ralph Northam’s Chief Workforce Advisor. “We actually had to pull people out of retirement to upgrade our system.”

The increase in jobless claims as this effort was on pause exposed the age of the unemployment system. Unable to turn to an online platform for basic status updates, Virginians have often been forced to get information through overwhelmed call centers. Despite efforts to scale up these resources, claimants continue to contact 8News saying they can’t get anyone on the phone.

Healy said $10 million will be used to maintain increased staffing at call centers after federal funding for these positions runs out. She said it will also pay for an additional 120 employees at a new site expected to open in Southwest Virginia in the coming weeks. In total, Healy said the state will have more than 800 people fielding phone calls moving forward.

Upgrades to the VEC’s online system are expected to relieve pressure on those call centers, which will allow staff to focus on more complex problems, according to Healy. When the project is done, she said people will be able to track their claim, possible issues with their application, see the status of an adjudication and upload documents more easily.

Healy said those improvements are expected to be complete by June of 2021.

“I truly think this will make a difference,” Healy said. “One of our biggest challenges is, how do you communicate when you have 1.4 million people apply for unemployment, which is basically 10 years worth in 10 months?”

Removing ‘snail mail’ requirements

A bill from Del. Kathy Tran (D-Springfield) would get rid of a requirement that certain notices from the VEC be delivered by mail.

Currently, Tran said Virginians get letters to confirm their claim has been filed, to notify them of a monetary determination and to obtain their pin to access to the unemployment system. Her legislation, which has now passed in both chambers, would allow that information to be shared electronically instead.

“This will help to speed up the process of getting some of this information so that you don’t have to wait for the letter to come with your pin in order to start filing weekly claims,” Tran said.

Tran said the change will also save the state money on postage. She said the VEC has spent $2.8 million on mail during the pandemic.

If signed by Gov. Northam, this bill will take effect on July 1, 2021.

Addressing the sudden halting of payments

A separate bill introduced by Del. Sally Hudson (D-Charlottesville) would bar the state from abruptly stopping unemployment payments before the claimant has had an opportunity to resolve the issue in a hearing.

Last year, Hudson said small problems forced many people to wait in limbo for weeks without benefits as the VEC worked through a massive backlog of adjudications.

Northam’s Adminstration has since adopted a temporary policy preventing this but Hudson’s bill seeks to make it permanent.

“As an economist, I’m keenly aware that we learn lessons like this every recession and we have to fix them while they’re fresh in people’s minds because there will be another one,” Hudson said.

A possible waiver for overpayments

Another section of Hudson’s bill addresses a problem that emerged from confusion in the early days of the pandemic. At the time, unemployment eligibility was expanding and a broad group of people were encouraged to apply.

As a result, Hudson said many jobless Virginians filled out applications in good faith and were awarded benefits due to administrative errors. Now, some who remain in financial jeopardy may be forced to pay back thousands to the state without action from the General Assembly, according to Hudson.

Hudson’s legislation would allow debt to be waived in those situations, though it would not apply to cases of fraud. Hudson wants to make this a permanent policy in the Commonwealth but some senators disagree. Instead, they want to allow overpayment waivers for cases going back to March of 2020, with the protection expiring in the summer of 2022.

“We never know what form a recession is going to take and so you want the system to be able to weather a lot of applications in a very short period of time,” Hudson said. “If the system is designed so that when the state makes mistakes, the workers suffer–that’s not a very fair system for the long haul.” 

This bill has passed in the House and Senate. Details are still being ironed out in a conference committee.

Protections for coronavirus pandemic rejected

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee killed a second bill from Del. Tran that would’ve given Virginians more flexibility to remain on unemployment in certain circumstances related to COVID-19.

Currently, claimants who turn down an offer to return to work due to the coronavirus have to go through a lengthy adjudication process before their unemployment payments can resume, according to Tran. Her bill would’ve allowed benefits to continue seamlessly in cases where a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, caring for a sick family member or if they can show evidence that an employer isn’t following the state’s workplace safety guidelines.

Tran said her proposal would’ve only allowed people to continue receiving payments until their benefit weeks were exhausted but opponents feared the policy could be taken advantage of.

“The federal government has provided states with a lot of flexibility to meet this moment in terms of the pandemic,” Tran said in defense of her bill. “A number of states across the country are adopting these flexibilities so I’m disappointed Virginia didn’t.”