NORFOLK, Va. — A federal judge says there’s still work to be done to fix Virginia’s unemployment system, even though the state completed major requirements by a Labor Day deadline.
After a lawsuit and court settlement in May, the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) had until Labor Day to resolve a backlog of more than 92,000 unemployment claims needing review.
The VEC reports it has resolved more than 91,000 of these claims in the last four months. Both the legal aid groups and plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit, and the federal judge overseeing the case praised the outcome.
However, legal aid groups say "tens of thousands of additional cases have been added to the adjudication backlog since May 10" and "very, very few cases are resolved within the time limits established by the U.S. Department of Labor."
From July to September, Labor Department data shows the VEC resolved just 5.4% of new unemployment claims needing adjudication within three weeks.
Additionally, there's a growing backlog of unemployment appeals cases, with an average wait time of 274 days - or 9 months - for a hearing.
The VEC asked a federal judge to dismiss the case because it achieved specific benchmarks listed in the May settlement by the Labor Day deadline, but the request was denied.
Instead, Judge Henry Hudson ordered the VEC and legal aid groups to meet before Sept. 25 to make a plan to resolve outstanding unemployment issues.
"While the Court recognizes the significant progress made by the VEC, additional objectives remain unfulfilled," Hudson wrote in his order. "[The parties] are hereby directed to meet and devise a path to resolve the remaining issues and provide the Court with a status report detailing the benchmarks for resolution."
Some unemployed workers just keep waiting.
"To be honest, I think they’re only having people call us back because of the situation with the state," said LaTonya Childress in an interview with 13News Now. "After a while, what are we going to do?"
As part of the benchmarks required in the legal settlement, the VEC hired more than 300 new call center staffers.
It also increased its weekly number of adjudications resolved to more than 30,000 - well above requirements and more than six times a pre-lawsuit rate.
Plaintiffs wrote that the VEC should be recognized for its progress in resolving most of the backlog of targeted cases that existed as of May 10, however, Virginia's identity verification processes have also caused many Virginians "to be denied benefits to which they are entitled."
The attorneys representing legal aid groups and unemployment claimants also said they continue to hear from Virginians who say they're awaiting information on their unemployment claims that they filed well before May 10.
"Perhaps they are additional people who the VEC’s recordkeeping has failed to identify amidst the surge in claims. In either case, there are many very old cases still to be resolved," the attorneys wrote.
In his order, Judge Hudson said the upcoming status report must include the number of first-level unemployment claim appeals that are currently pending.
Federal unemployment benefit programs expired on Sept. 4, including benefit extensions, benefits for self-employed and independent contractors, and the additional $300 per week payments.
VEC leaders say they will distribute back pay including federal benefit payments if claimants are found to be retroactively eligible.
"Just have patience I guess because you can’t really do anything other than have patience, especially if you’ve done enough on your part," said Ashley Strickland, an unemployed worker.
In the most recent reply to the court, the VEC wrote the lawsuit and case deadlines have "caused considerable disruption at the VEC and emotional stress for its employees, who have collectively worked tirelessly since the Settlement Order’s entry to meet these adjudication targets."
Editor's note: The video above is on file from Sept. 3, 2021.