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Lawsuit seeks to help people unable to get unemployment benefits during pandemic

Published: Apr. 15, 2021 at 10:46 AM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WDBJ/Legal Aid Justice Center Release) - A class-action lawsuit has been filed in federal court seeking relief for Virginians “who lost their jobs during the pandemic and have no income to pay for basic necessities while waiting months for the VEC (Virginia Employment Commission) to approve their claims,” according to the Legal Aid Justice Center.

The suit was filed Thursday by the Legal Aid Justice Center, Legal Aid Works, and the Virginia Poverty Law Center, along with Consumer Litigation Associates, PC, and Kelly Guzzo, PLC.

Virginia ranks 50th out of 50 states, according to lawyers filing the suit, in processing issues on unemployment claims. In the last three months of 2020, the suit says, the VEC failed to decide “nonmonetary” eligibility issues (such as why someone’s job ended) within three weeks—as required by law—more than 95% of the time, and it has only gotten worse in the first two months of 2021. The suit says the most recent statistics showed it was taking at least ten weeks for nearly all claims – and reports indicate it often takes much longer.

While the demand for unemployment insurance funds may have surprised the VEC at the start of the pandemic, the lawyers say, a full year has now passed. Yet the agency is still plagued with payment delays. Since access to additional federal unemployment benefits (such as from the CARES Act or the 2021 American Rescue Plan) requires VEC approval, these delays prevent Virginia residents from receiving federal payments, too.

That’s despite, the suit says, Virginia receiving more than $38M in federal support to help bolster its administrative response to this unemployment crisis.

WDBJ7 reached out Thursday morning to the VEC for comment on the lawsuit. A spokesperson for the VEC declined to comment.

When asked for comment from the governor’s office, this statement was sent:

“While we can’t comment on pending litigation, Governor Northam is committed to getting Virginians the benefits they deserve. Over the past year, VEC has paid out $13 billion in benefits to 1.3 million people—more people than over the last 10 years combined. It’s important to remember that not everyone who applies for benefits will be eligible, and appeals require a longer process. But despite a record-breaking influx of claims, we are proud that Virginia is the 6th fastest state in getting benefits into the hands of eligible workers (according to the US Dept. of Labor; see below). Like many states, we continue to work day and night to improve the system.”

US Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), in a recent letter to Governor Northam, said, “From Newport News to Henrico to Alexandria, constituents are contacting my office from every corner of the Commonwealth with desperate requests for relief. Some of them have waited 3 months, others have waited 11 months, and many are struggling to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads,” and said, “for constituents still experiencing delays the lack of pandemic unemployment insurance is unconscionable.”

“After getting cut off benefits, I became homeless for roughly four months. I have no income now, other than food stamps. I have a roof over my head again, for now, only through temporary assistance from rent relief programs,” said Lenita Gibson, a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. “The financial loss has been tremendous, and emotionally you are just a wreck. It’s been horrible. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be treated like this. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“When you lose your income, it’s the scariest thing on the planet. I’ve filed my unemployment claims every week for over five months now and have gotten nothing. I’ve emailed and called the VEC repeatedly and— when I could finally get a hold of a person—I just get told to wait,” said Ashley Cox, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “My family has had to go on public assistance to survive. It has been so stressful.”

“Being cut off benefits, without any kind of chance to fight for them, has been hard on my daughter and me. We lost our housing and had to leave the area. I desperately need these benefits and feel beyond frustrated that it has seven months since I last received them. I am so overwhelmed,” said Amber Dimmerling, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The litigation challenges what plaintiffs say are two common VEC failures regarding processing and adjudication of applications (“Initial Claims”) and the abrupt cut-off of benefits the VEC initially approved (“Continued Claims”)—both of which violate federal and state unemployment laws, the suit says, as well as the due process guarantees of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

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