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Suing for Benefits: Unemployed workers take drastic steps to get payments from VEC

Some Virginians report waiting months for unemployment claim review and benefit payments. Two women said they needed to file civil complaints to get their money.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Over the past year, more than 1.5 million Virginians filed unemployment claims. Even in 2021, in an overwhelmed system, many people report waiting months for benefits.

After unanswered calls and months of waiting for claim reviews, two unemployed women decided to file civil complaints in federal court to get their benefits - and it worked.

Lakisha Madlock, a single mother in Virginia Beach, said her unemployment benefits unexpectedly stopped and she waited two months for a resolution. 

She said she called the Virginia Employment Commission customer service phone number every day, but couldn't reach an agent.

So, she filed a lawsuit. A civil complaint in Norfolk federal court, requesting damages from the VEC for a lack of “response or resolution, nor due process of claim for benefits.” 

"It's not something I wanted to do or thought I would have to do, " Madlock said. "But if I hadn't, I'd still be with the thousands of other people out there not getting [unemployment benefits]."

RELATED: Virginia's unemployment extension program is now active, VEC says 80,000 people are eligible

Madlock said VEC representatives called her back the week after she filed, and then every day until she received thousands of dollars in payments and backpay. 

“Why did I have to even go that route?" she asked. “It seems very crazy, but when your back is against the wall, what do you really do.”

Madlock is an administrator of a Virginia unemployment-related Facebook page – one of many groups where struggling, unemployed workers vent their frustrations and ask for help.

It’s where she got the idea to file in court, because it had worked before.

Deidra Byrd, a former senior paralegal administrator for a medical malpractice law firm, had "successfully" sued for unemployment benefits the month before.

“I was just frustrated, hurt, angry, crying during sleepless nights," Byrd said. "On December 22 I protested and filed my complaint, and on December 23 my claim was approved."

She didn't mince words about her experience trying to reach the VEC.

“Speaking to the [VEC] was like going to the dentist and getting seven teeth pulled with no Novocaine, and that’s putting it mildly," she said.

After losing her job at a law firm, she waited four months before suing for benefits.

Only then did she receive an $8,538 lump sum payment.

“If I had not filed that claim in federal court, I would still be sitting here crying, waiting for some type of relief," Byrd said.

Neither Byrd nor Madlock continued their legal claims after receiving unemployment payments from the VEC.

RELATED: Hampton business owner says former employees are fraudulently collecting unemployment benefits

13News now asked the Virginia Employment Commission why these women received unemployment benefits so quickly after filing lawsuits, when they couldn’t get help through regular VEC channels.

A spokesperson said the VEC has increased customer service staff from 52 people to 677 people over the last year, and deferred questions about lawsuits to the Attorney General’s office.

After receiving benefits, Madlock recommends filing a civil complaint against the VEC to other people in desperate need.

“It feels like it’s my responsibility in a sense. They aren’t, they don’t have their [benefits], I still feel like this huge weight.”

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