RICHMOND, Va. — Note: The video above is from a 13News Now story that aired on January 25, 2023.
Virginia lawmakers have shelved a pair of bills that would have given unemployment claimants half as much time to file an appeal with a state agency still struggling with pandemic-related cases.
A Senate panel on Monday voted unanimously to pass by the legislation, which had been pitched as a way to improve efficiencies at the Virginia Employment Commission, an agency that struggled to keep up with legitimate claims at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and was swamped with fraudulent ones. A House committee tabled a companion measure last week.
“I think a lot of legislators looked closely at this and didn’t see how it would expedite the process. And to be frank, I can’t see how it would expedite the process,” said Flannery O'Rourke, an attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, which had opposed the measures.
The legislation, sponsored by Republican Del. Wendell Walker in the House and Democrat John Bell in the Senate, was introduced on behalf of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration.
It would have reduced from 30 days to 15 days the amount of time a claimant has to file an appeal after receiving a “notice of determination” of a claim before the determination would become final.
The commission's top official, Carrie Roth, told lawmakers earlier this session that the measure would apply equally to businesses and individuals and described the measure as a way to improve customer service.
“We’re really trying to get to that final decision quickly for the customer,” she said.
She said it's not difficult for claimants to appeal. “You can write it on a napkin, and we will accept that appeal,” she said.
But opponents of the legislation argued that navigating the unemployment insurance system can be confusing and noted continuing problems Virginians have encountered in accessing the commission, including waits at call centers and persistent technological problems that have blocked users from accessing an online portal.
"Shortening the appeals period makes it harder for both employers and claimants alike to challenge bad decisions," Pat Levy-Lavelle, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, told a House subcommittee.
Walker’s bill was voted down, with committee chair Del. Kathy Byron saying she planned to send a letter to an advisory commission to look at the issue. A Senate committee took the same step Monday, without discussion.
Youngkin campaigned in 2021 on a pledge to right the ship at the Virginia Employment Commission, which like similar agencies around the country struggled to keep pace with the surge of unemployment insurance applications during the pandemic. But the agency also stood out on some fronts for its exceptionally poor response.
By some measures, the agency has made significant progress in the past year. A December report from the state's government watchdog agency found the Virginia Employment Commission had eliminated a previous backlog of employer separation reports awaiting review. The reports are used to verify claimants' eligibility.
The same report also found the agency had nearly eliminated a backlog of claims awaiting adjudication, meaning the investigation of potential eligibility issues. And it said the commission's backlog of claims awaiting fraud investigation was sizeable but decreasing.
“Our team has done an incredible amount of work in a year," Roth said during the House hearing earlier this month.
But Virginia has a bigger backlog of first-level appeals cases in its unemployment system now than in January 2022, the month Youngkin took office, O’Rourke said, citing the agency's own data. Those cases are also taking much longer than the U.S. average to resolve, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report found.
O'Rourke compared the problem to a “pig in a python," saying backlogs are cleared at one step but pushed down the line to the next level of the process.
“The VEC is inching forward, but we are still miles behind,” O'Rourke said.