Virginia Employment Commission Still Swamped By Pandemic Backlog, May Need Additional Oversight
The General Assembly’s watchdog agency presented a scathing interim report on the Virginia Employment Commission’s performance during the pandemic. And investigators say additional oversight of the VEC is probably needed.
Staffers from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said the VEC could not have been fully prepared for all the challenges brought on by COIVD-19, but it could have been better prepared.
The interim report presented Monday blamed the problems on a computer system designed in the 1980's, confusing guidance from the federal government, lack of clear communication to customers and employees, and slow shifts by the VEC to increase staffing resources.
Lauren Axselle is project leader for the investigation and presented the report. "This underperformance was substantial during COVID. But it also existed in many areas prior to COVID," Axselle told legislators. "This highlights the need for additional agency oversight and accountability." Axselle said the final report coming in November would have suggestions on what that oversight should be.
Some steps have already been taken. A modernized computer system is expected to come online at the beginning of October, though it was originally supposed to be in place eight years ago.
The employment commission has brought on contracted management for its call center and contract employees for other functions. But those moves happened only in the last few months, according to the report. Investigators say the VEC still has tens of thousands of backlogged cases that need adjudication. And, they add, the focus on reducing that backlog has resulted in slowdowns in first payments and appeals. Only 24% of first payments are meeting the U. S. Department of Labor's 21 day goal, for example. The VEC has also paused efforts to recover overpayments as it deals with the other backlogs.
The state's Secretary of Labor, Megan Healy, told legislators "we agree it's been an extreme challenge." Healy said the transition to a new computer system in October is an important step. She also called the Commission's funding model outdated. It usually receives no state general fund money and instead relies on a resource justification model that returns a portion of federal taxes to the agency.
Legislators said they've been swamped with calls from constituents who are struggling to get their benefits straightened out. "We just have to put this on the front burner and get it fixed," Delegate Terry Austin said.