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“It’s a black hole”: Legal Aid Justice Center discusses Virginia Employment Commission lawsuit

Updated: Apr. 15, 2021 at 6:50 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) has filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC), over delays in unemployment benefits and fixing issues with claims. The plaintiffs say the issues, which have persisted since the beginning of the pandemic, is not just violating federal law: it’s a historic failure.

The LAJC estimates tens of thousands of Virginians have been stuck in limbo – waiting months for issues to be resolved and for benefits to be paid out. It claims Virginia ranks dead last of the 50 states in processing issues on unemployment claims.

The Legal Aid Justice Center has heard stories of delays, benefits unpaid, or cut off through a hot line it set up last year.

“Amber Dimmerling was, you know, working 35 hours a week at a restaurant, she was laid off in March 2020,” LAJC Attorney Brenda Castaneda explained. “The VEC identified an issue with her application in September of 2020, and just hasn’t adjudicated that. So, she’s filed her weekly claims, and she’s just not getting benefits, and she’s not getting a chance to, you know, essentially, argue, argue her side of the story in order to get her benefits restored.”

Dimmerling is one of five named plaintiffs in the case. The LAJC is joining with Legal Aid Works, the Virginia Poverty Law Center, and several others for the class action lawsuit. It says the problems are two-fold.

“People were contacting the VEC, they weren’t getting any response, they weren’t able to get through, they weren’t able to find out the status of their application and months and months,” Castaneda explained. “In some cases, they’re getting benefits, and then having them cut off without any hearing or access to, you know, an appeal for that.”

According to federal law, the VEC has three weeks to decide unemployment eligibility. The lawsuit says it failed to do that in 95%, and nearly all claims were taking 10 weeks or more.

The issues have persisted despite the state receiving $38 million in federal funds to respond to additional unemployment filings caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The LAJC says the system is in desperate need of an overhaul.

“None of that’s working for them right now,” Castaneda said. “It’s a black hole, and they want it to be new. Something that’s transparent, and that functions for them.”

Along with this filing, the LAJC has launched a petition online to call for the state to fix the problem.

The VEC has 21 days to respond to the suit.

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