Virginians frustrated with Virginia Employment Commission as second round of unemployment benefits end

Published: Mar. 16, 2021 at 5:54 AM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Pandemic Unemployment Assistance ended for thousands of Virginians Sunday. But the last 13 weeks have been a nightmare for people waiting on their benefits, and many are still waiting.

Over the last two months, WDBJ7 has heard from dozens of people in our hometowns and throughout the Commonwealth about their troubling experiences with the Virginia Employment Commission. In fact, Virginia ranks 50 out of 51 when it comes to unemployment response.

In Roanoke, various hotels have been William Mayo’s home for the last three months... when he can pay the night’s rate, that is.

“You don’t know where you’re going to stay the next day,” he said. “You don’t know if you’re going to be sleeping in your car or if you’re going to be sleeping in a motel room.”

Like thousands of Virginians, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Mayo hard. He’d already spent years down on his luck.

“Very stressful. Very stressful.”

Through mid-December 2020, he received $158 in PUA benefits regularly. When those benefits exhausted, President Trump extended the benefits for another 13 weeks. That’s when Mayo got lost in the system.

“I called VEC and they told me to reapply,” Mayo said. “I reapplied and that’s kind of what messed everything up for me and whole bunch of other people.”

WDBJ7 spent the better part of a month interviewing, emailing, and chatting with people on Facebook about their similar experiences to Mayo’s.

“It’s horrible. Absolutely horrible,” Celina Robinson from Leesville said.

“I’m tired. I’m frustrated,” Kendra Luckett from Bristol said.

“I’m getting literally no assistance. I’m getting no help,” LJ Tisdale from Loudon County said.

“It’s stressful because you know like, I have bills too,” Neisha Ringgold in Norfolk said. “It almost makes you feel like they don’t care.”

Despite the fact that the Virginia Employment Commission claims they have over 500 employees answering phone calls seven days a week, many of the complaints we heard were from people who never got their calls answered.

“You can never talk to anybody. Ever. Ever!” Robinson said.

“I probably spent the course of like six or seven hours in one day,” Tisdale said.

“I’m just sitting here like I haven’t had a phone call or nothing yet,” Ringgold said.

WDBJ7 called VEC spokesperson Joyce Fogg.

“I’ve heard that people have waited on the phone for hours and hours and hours only to be cut off and have to go through the process again. Do you have any comments on that?” WDBJ7′s Katey Roshetko asked.

“We updated that system so that it has a callback feature now” Fogg said. “So after it reaches a certain number, and I don’t know what that number is, but once you get in that queue, there’s an option to leave your callback number and that way you don’t have to sit there and hold on.”

That option was only added in the last few weeks, though.

We also brought up the confusion over the reapplication process in Mayo’s situation.

“Do have any idea why they were being told to reapply if that wasn’t what they were supposed to do?” Roshetko asked.

“I really don’t,” Fogg answered. “I think people are just listening to so many different people, and I know there are all these groups on Facebook where they consult with each other.”

However, the miscommunication wasn’t just on social media.

“There was some confusion, because on our website it explained if you had to reapply or if you did not,” Fogg said. “So I know there was some confusion about that because if you reapply and don’t have to, it creates an issue on your account.”

“You would think that since they’ve seen that everybody has done this and reapplied, it’s not fraud or anything like that,” Mayo said. “It’s just something they were told to do because at that time they were giving no information at all on what to do or where to go.”

And not many people understood new documentation was required to even receive the extended pandemic unemployment assistance.

“The new one required that you upload verification of your identity and upload verification of your salary and wages,” Fogg said. “And that was not required before. People self-certified last year.”

And even though President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill does extend unemployment aid through September 6, the VEC doesn’t know what the new process will look like.

“It’s emotional for us, too,” Fogg said. “You want to help people, but with the volume, it’s almost difficult to get that done.”

Which means Mayo and the others may waiting once again for another round of relief.

“It is what it is,” he said. “You just gotta do what you gotta and just keep on pushing forward till something comes around.”

WDBJ7 reached out to everyone we interviewed last week. Three of the people in this story who told us they did eventually receive their back pay and weekly income. Another hasn’t received anything and is working with her legislator to file a lawsuit. Everyone we heard back from said they were concerned that this next round on unemployment benefits will cause problems once again.

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