Just 12 Percent of Calls to Virginia Employment Commission Are Answered, New Report Says

A new report is exposing the struggles of the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Associated Press.

The state's legislative watchdog agency report warned that lawmakers should try to strengthen the commission through increased oversight and resources, and that not much has changed since the agency's last report which noted that only 12 percent of calls are answered.

"It's clear that additional oversight and assistance is needed," said project leader Lauren Axselle, who presented the report to lawmakers on behalf of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.

Another issue that Axselle presented was the number of incorrect payments made by the commission. She said the payments have increased to more than $1 billion since September. They were told they needed to collect the overpayments, despite staffers currently working through a backlog of benefit applications.

Last September, the commission's vacancy rate increased to 46 percent, a stark contrast to the 13 percent to 25 percent of full-time staff vacancy rate between 2015 and 2019. Granting exemptions from typical hiring processes and using emergency assistance were some suggestions the report gave to the VEC to alleviate the problem.

Forty specific recommendations were given to the commission for improvement as part of the 200-page report. The agency's information technology system will go offline at 5 p.m. Monday to implement a new one. Customers will not be able to call the VEC during that time.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

VEC
More than a year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic, the Virginia Employment Commission is still swamped with backlogged claims, its call centers are underperforming and serious staffing problems persist, according to a scathing interim report the state's legislative watchdog agency presented to lawmakers on Monday. Above, the exterior of the headquarters of the Virginia Employment Commission in Richmond on April 15, 2021. AP Photo/Steve Helber

The review commission had previously presented grim interim findings, warning in September that employment commission call centers lawmakers weren't performing well despite an infusion of millions of dollars from lawmakers.

The report also found that the commission was less efficient than most other states' agencies in most functions the federal government measures.

Because the agency is almost entirely funded with federal money distributed under a complicated formula that takes efficiency into account, those rankings have put it at a financial disadvantage, she said.

The report suggested hiring a national firm to conduct an efficiency review.

The report urged the creation of a temporary legislative entity to monitor VEC's ongoing improvement efforts.

No one from the VEC or administration provided a response during Monday's meeting.

Hal Greer, director of the JLARC staff, said the VEC commissioner had been advised by counsel to refrain from speaking due to pending litigation over the backlog of cases needing adjudication. Megan Healy, outgoing Governor Ralph Northam's secretary of labor, was not present.

States around the country struggled to keep pace with the surge of unemployment insurance applications during the pandemic, but Virginia stood out in several measures for its poor response.

Republican Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, who will take office in mid-January, campaigned on a promise to overhaul the agency. He has not yet announced leadership for key cabinet positions.

Ralph Northam
More than a year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic, the Virginia Employment Commission is still swamped with backlogged claims, its call centers are underperforming and serious staffing problems persist, according to a scathing interim report the state's legislative watchdog agency presented to lawmakers on Monday. Above, outgoing Virginia Governor Ralph Northam attends Transforming Rail in Virginia at the Amtrak-VRE station in March 30, 2021, in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images