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Congressman flooded with unemployment complaints

(AP) A Virginia congressman is raising an alarm about the state’s delays in delivering unemployment benefits, saying he’s received two months of “continuous complaints” from his constituents.

Democratic Rep. A. Donald McEachin wrote in a July 14 letter to Virginia Employment Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess that many Virginians are telling him they can’t even get a response from the state agency handling jobless benefits.

McEachin, whose 4th Congressional District stretches south and east from Richmond, said he is deeply concerned about the reported problems and whether enough is being done to resolve them.

“My office has received hundreds of phone calls and online requests from constituents, who have been unable to receive benefits, stopped receiving benefits without warning or explanation, or were unable to reach VEC staff by phone or email to resolve these issues,” he wrote. “Callers have reported issues with your website and phone system, and have informed my office that they have not been able to reach your staff or receive a return call in several weeks.”

The Associated Press and other media outlets have received and documented similar complaints about the commission, which has been dealing with an unprecedented flood of applications for benefits.

Gov. Ralph Northam said at a July 14 news conference that the agency has increased its staff by 550 percent and handled applications from nearly 939,000 Virginians since March 15, when pandemic-related closures began impacting the economy.

Ninety-one percent of eligible claims have been paid within 14 days, Northam said.

McEachin wrote that he recognizes the VEC has been flooded with claims but remains “concerned that not enough is being done.”

“My constituents are running out of the vital financial resources necessary to provide for themselves and their families during this unprecedented time, and it is imperative that the VEC addresses and resolves these issues immediately,” he wrote.

McEachin asked Hess to detail the current percentage of claims adjudicated to date; the status of backlogged claims pending administrative review; and the status of a hiring initiative described in June.

Spokeswoman Joyce Fogg said the VEC had not yet had the chance to fully review the letter. But she emphasized that the agency’s staff have been working hard to help out-of-work Virginians.

She said a little over 75% of the claims received since mid-March — a number she said was over 1 million — have been paid out. The biggest portion of those that have not been paid have some outstanding issue, such as someone entering the wrong social security number, Fogg said.

Chelsea Dickson, who lives outside McEachin’s district in Fairfax County, contacted AP after going months without receiving any benefits, or even being able to reach anyone with the VEC to learn why.

“I am in desperate need to get the unemployment owed to me. … PLEASE HELP ME,” wrote Dickson, 23.

Dickson said she was furloughed from her full-time job as a community manager for a coworking space in mid-April. Her online dashboard, shared with AP in a screenshot, shows she is “monetarily ineligible,” although she said other colleagues furloughed at the same time have been receiving benefits.

She’s tried calling her local VEC office, where she said she lands on a voicemail box that’s full. She shared screenshots of her call logs showing repeated tries to get through to a VEC call center. This week she tried getting in touch with the chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, whose aide shared Dickson’s information with her representative on the board and also suggested she contact her state lawmakers for help, according to an email shared with AP.

“Luckily I’m living with my mom, but I’ve gone through every dollar of my savings,” she said.

-SARAH RANKIN, Associated Press

Updated July 15 to add comment from the VEC spokesperson.

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