A backlog of unemployment appeals is building up in Virginia, legal aid attorneys say

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- The Virginia Employment Commission has processed a massive backlog of disputed claims but long wait times are a growing problem for those attempting to challenge an initial denial, according to legal aid attorneys. 

As a result of a class action lawsuit, a Labor Day deadline was set to get through 92,000 more complex unemployment claims pre-dating May 10. Those cases included those waiting on an initial eligibility determination and those whose benefits were abruptly cut off without explanation. 

Legal Aid Justice Center Attorney Pat Levy-Lavelle said the state is resolving the roughly 10,000 issues that have been added since May more quickly. However, he said those who are denied benefits at the deputy level are running into a huge barrier at the first level of appeals. He said that’s increasingly coming to the attention of the judge overseeing the settlement as next steps are considered. 

In an interview on Friday, Virginia’s Secretary of Labor Megan Healy estimated that the state is working through more than 100,000 appeals. 

The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor shows Virginia is the third slowest among states and territories when it comes to resolving lower authority appeals. On average, it took 274.6 days–far exceeding the federal standard of 30 days or less. 

“That waiting time has increased during the course of the pandemic and the fact that people now are waiting nine months or more in some cases for a shot at getting benefits if they have been denied at the deputy level is a real concern for Virginians who are trying to survive day to day,” Levy-Lavelle said. “I think it is one of the main issues at this point.” 

There are several reasons why someone may be rejected in the first stage of the process, according to Levy-Lavelle. He said they’re hearing from a lot of people who are getting denied on the allegation that they have not submitted documents related to proof of earnings. Others are caught up in employer disputes over whether they left voluntarily or were laid off. 

“At the appeals examiner level they have a fuller opportunity to tell their side of the story, testify and supply documents. Those cases are overturned all the time,” Levy-Lavelle said.

Richmond mother of two Teneé White, 36, filed her appeal on Oct. 26, 2020. Her attorney told 8News that she was initially disqualified for allegedly quitting voluntarily but she claims she was furloughed. 

White, whose pregnant with a third child, said the uncertainty has caused a lot of stress.

“I’ve had to deal with eviction court. I’ve had to get rental assistance. So it has been a lot,” White said. “Right now, it’s like has someone seen my case? Is it just sitting on someone’s desk? Has it been trashed? Does anyone even know that I exist? Like it’s been 9 or 10 months going on a full year and I haven’t heard anything so just poor communication about what they are doing to help.” 

Healy said appeals involving employer disputes are common, especially because a business’s taxes typically go up when a staff member goes on unemployment. She said these cases are very complex and take a lot of time to sort through. 

That’s part of the reason why appeals officers need more experience, further complicating the hiring process. She said the state currently has 35 of these officers and they’re trying to double that.

“It has been a challenge to hire but we know our next big step forward is to hire more appeals officers,” Healy said. “We’ve reached out to every single law school in Virginia.”

Levy-Lavelle said some states have shifted staff from other agencies. Others are taking on private law firms to help. He said the state may have to get creative to make progress in this area. 

When it comes to the class-action lawsuit, Levy-Lavelle said both parties have until Sept. 24 to finalize a status report detailing remaining issues and future benchmarks. 

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