A spokesperson for the Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) told legislators that the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) is still unable to answer most of its incoming calls and expressed concern about the backlog of certain types of claims requiring extra review. On Tuesday, JLARC Principal Legislative Analyst Lauren Axselle gave a brief update to legislators, noting that an interim report will be complete in September with a final report on the VEC scheduled for November.

Axselle warned that due to high turnover, it’s unclear if the VEC’s recent hirings have actually increased the amount of staff.

“The narrative that cast VEC’s performance in this area as entirely positive may not be presenting the full picture to legislators,” Axselle said.

During COVID-19, the VEC has struggled to process certain types of claims requiring extra review, leading to the backlog. A recent lawsuit settlement requires the May 10 backlog of 92,158 claims to be resolved by Labor Day. The settlement also requires VEC staff to accelerate adjudication of cases to 20,000 per week by August 1, immediately process adjudications for applicants covered by Pandemic Unemployment benefits, and place the VEC’s deadlines and performance standards under supervision by the court and plaintiffs.

VEC staff have told legislators that the agency is on track to meet those goals thanks to increased hiring, accelerated training, and more call centers. At the beginning of June, Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess told legislators that 66,966 claims remained to be processed. “We’re really hoping to have the work completed prior to September 6th,” she said.

On Tuesday, Axselle said, “VEC reports reducing that backlog to around 40,000 claims over the past two months but concern has been raised that additional adjudication issues have been added to their backlog during this time.”

Axselle also expressed concern that efforts to process the claims more quickly could come at the cost of accuracy.

Legislators from both parties have repeatedly reported high numbers of constituents complaining that the VEC isn’t answering calls. Axselle said that the VEC is bringing on the same call center contractor the Virginia Department of Health has used successfully, but that call center performance is currently still low.

“I think call center performance has kind of changed over time,” Axselle said.  “Some of the numbers I believe look a little bit worse currently than they did during the peak of the pandemic, and that might be a factor of more people calling in for questions now than perhaps they did early on as things continue to go unaddressed.”

Axselle said the upcoming reports will include recommendations, but JLARC is already offering some recommendations.

“On this study JLARC’s staff have deviated from our usual practice of waiting until the end of a study to recommend that an agency take certain actions to remedy operational shortcomings. We do not usually recommend anything to agencies while a study is ongoing. However, during this study we have recommended to VEC leaders that they take specific actions where we have felt confident that the actions will lead to near-term improvements,” Axselle said.

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Network.  Email tips to eburk@vastarnews.com.
Photo “Unemployment Office” by Burt Lum. CC BY 2.0.