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WDBJ7 Special Report: Broke for the Holidays

Published: Dec. 18, 2020 at 5:15 AM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - The Virginia Employment Commission reports more than 1,400,000 people have filed for unemployment since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, as businesses closed or downsized. However, thousands of people haven’t received any of the benefits they filed for.

There are no Christmas lights outside Wendy Webb’s house in Roanoke. There’s no wreath on the door. The corner where the tree usually goes is empty.

“I don’t feel no Christmas spirit,” Webb cried. “How can you have Christmas spirit when you don’t have anything to even have a Christmas?”

Like so many Americans, 2020 wrecked Webb’s world, but her troubles began before the pandemic when she was diagnosed with massive kidney stones and underwent surgery at the beginning of March.

“Right after I got out of the hospital, everything shut down,” Webb said. “Technically, I had no job to go back to.”

That was the first time in several years Webb had to file for unemployment. Everything was going smoothly until the money stopped coming in July, just a few days after her second kidney surgery.

“That really broke me,” she said.

At the end of the month, Webb filed for unemployment again and was told she’d receive her check within 30 days.

“End of August came and went I heard nothing,” she said.

And she’s not the only one.

“We’re hearing a lot of people that are having trouble getting unemployment benefits or it’s taking months to get them,” Jo Nelson, director of Total Action for Progress (TAP), explained.

She said there’s usually a discrepancy or error in the applicant’s paperwork that has pushed their application to the adjudication process.

“That process is backed up,” Nelson confirmed. “And the state just doesn’t have the human beings to process them. And so there really is no way around that other than trying to be really careful when you do an application.”

For Webb, the discrepancy was her employment history, but she didn’t know that until five months after her application was sent in.

“I said, ‘When were you going to let me know that, wherein I could have handled that, or fixed whatever issues, or got whatever information that you needed?’” Webb said.

Instead, she spent months calling and e-mailing the Virginia Employment Commission nearly every day.

“This was September the 8th,” she said, reading an email. “I put, ‘Can someone help me understand why I haven’t received my payments. Please help. Is there something wrong with my card that I’m unaware of?’”

But there was never any answer.

“You want to give up but you can’t,” Webb said. “You gotta keep fighting.”

It’s not just applicants who have had a hard time reaching someone with the VEC. WDBJ7 had a phone interview scheduled with the VEC communications manager for the first Friday in December, but she never picked up the phone.

When we tried to leave a message, the automatic answering machine said, “The mailbox is full and cannot accept any messages at this time. Goodbye.”

Since Dec. 3, we’ve sent six e-mails to the communications department and tried calling the communication manager more than a dozen times, but to no avail until noon Thursday, Dec. 17, right before WDBJ7′s story aired.

“The reality is the VEC is working every day,” Nelson explained. “They’re bringing on more and more staff, extra staff in all the local offices. But in order for them to process all the claims. They don’t have the time or the ability to answer all those calls.”

Which leaves people like Webb alone and in the dark with unanswered questions.

“How?” Webb asked through tears. “How am I supposed to survive? How am I supposed to make this work? When all I need is my unemployment and I can make it work.”

Wendy Webb did finally get a phone call from Virginia Career Works - Blue Ridge and get some of her questions answered, but it’s unlikely she’ll see any relief before Christmas.

That’s the reality for so many people across Southwest Virginia. Since March, WDBJ7 has heard from dozens of viewers about their own struggles reaching someone with the Virginia Employment Commission.

Virginia Career Works is one of the many organizations helping meet people’s needs, including answering questions about their unemployment paperwork.

Because of the latest COVID-19 restrictions in Virginia, they’re no longer allowed to see people in person. Instead, it has rolled out new scheduling software for people to make appointments online.

You can book a date and time for a representative to call you up to 14 days in advance.

Total Action for Progress also has employment training opportunities to help qualify you for different jobs.

SwiftStart is for parents which includes job training and childcare. RESTORE is for families affected by the opioid epidemic

They also have a program called OnRamp to aid with emergency bills and other miscellaneous expenses.

WDBJ7 has also reached out to the governor’s office, but has not heard back.

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