RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Employment Commission has handed out more than $13 billion in unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the agency is now collecting some of that money back from Virginians.
Matthew Harris, of Mechanicsville, received nearly four thousand dollars in unemployment benefits last year and the agency is asking for every penny of it back. Harris is speaking up because others are dealing with the same problem. Harris tells our sister station WRIC that it’s unfair, while the VEC says it’s the law.
The financial burden has been weighing heavy on Harris for the last year.
“Why am I being hounded and hunted like this– I just think it’s unfair,” said Harris.
In May of 2020, Harris was hit with a big bill– totaling $3,867– and a letter from the VEC stating his benefits were cut off.
“I was disqualified for benefits and they wanted the money back that I’d gotten,” Harris shared with WRIC. “It’s insane.”
The few thousand dollars that the VEC claims Harris owes, is money the 24-year-old doesn’t have. Harris explained that he worked at a grocery store in Henrico for six months; from October of 2019 to March of 2020. He goes on to say that he left that job on March 3 due to ‘unfair scheduling’ and ‘working conditions that didn’t align with this goal. However, before quitting he had a job already lined up at American Family Fitness.
Harris worked at the gym for six days, proving that to WRIC with his timecard. However, as soon as he got to work the world seemingly shut down because of the pandemic.
“We shut down due to COVID, so I qualified for benefits because I was laid off from American Family.”
Harris received benefits for two months, from March until May, before they were revoked with an unexpected price tag. Harris says everything happened so fast and when he received the letter, he tried to get in contact with staff at the agency, but could not get through.
He goes on to say that he decided to appeal the case and during that process, his bill was sent to collections. Worried about his credit score, Harris’ father contacted a staffer at Congressman Wittman’s office. Ultimately, it was prevented from going to collections, but the bill is still looming.
Harris isn’t the only person being told to pay up; it’s happening to people all across the state including Annie Radigan Overton in Suffolk. She’s in the same boat, forced to fork over $4,600.
“I was completely caught off guard,” said Radigan Overton. “Now I have to pay it back– like that money is spent.”
Radigan Overton has hired legal representation to fight her case. Frustrated folks are trying to take their concerns to the VEC, but many say they’ve felt ignored and they can’t get through to a representative when calling over the phone. A few times in the past the agency’s website would not load.
Joyce Fogg, with the V.E.C., says the agency has received an influx of claims due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She says from March of 2020 to March of 2021, they’ve had 1.6 million people file for unemployment benefits. Last fall, Governor Ralph Northam directed the agency to pay out benefits immediately with a warning that people may be responsible for paying it back. Northam’s order was in an effort to get money into the pockets of Virginians faster because the processing of applications was slow.
“There were some people who were paid, who were not eligible,” Fogg said on Wednesday.
Fogg says this is the first time the VEC was ordered to expedite money, adding the agency had more claims in the last year than they’ve had in the last ten years. Throughout the process, staffers are actively adjudicating applications. That means reviewing applications by contacting the individual’s last employer to verify information, such as the reason for employment. Fogg says during adjudication, they’re finding many who were overpaid or not eligible for benefits. Those individuals are being asked to pay back the money.
“A lot of people don’t honestly answer the questions on the application,” said Fogg. “If they have answered them inappropriately and we find out differently or their employer contests that then we have to go back and review it.”
WRIC asked Fogg about Harris’ case who said he did not work at American Family Fitness long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits and left his previous job ‘voluntarily’ by quitting. Fogg says a person must work at a place of employment for 30 workdays or 240 hours.
“Unemployment benefits are paid by the employer and you have to have enough time with that employer to be able to claim benefits with that employer,” Fogg said.
WRIC asked Fogg if the application specifically states a length of employment to be eligible. She stated no and that information is mailed to the applicant in a ‘thick packet’ after filing.
Harris is now back working at American Family Fitness and is continuing the appeal process, but says things need to change.
“The employment commission just isn’t for the people, it’s really against them,” Harris said. “I’m lucky to try and appeal. I know people are dealing with this and owe up to $7,000. They couldn’t have handled things worse.”
In May, Governor Ralph Northam directed the Virginia Employment Commission to invest $20 million to expand the agency’s ability to process complicated unemployment insurance claims. The order requires the agency to add 300 new adjudication staffers, make immediate technology upgrades, and complete a full modernization of the Commonwealth’s unemployment insurance system by Oct. 1, 2021.
While the process is ongoing, Fogg says the agency has been dealing with issues too during the pandemic like staffing shortages, training new employees, constant claims and a death from the virus. However, she says the process hasn’t changed.
“It’s the law,” said Fogg. “We don’t make the laws, we just carry out the laws.”
Fogg adds that the agency has collected $59 million back from Virginians and there is still more out there. They’re urging people to fill out their applications truthfully and read all paperwork that is mailed out for eligibility requirements.
Harris wants his case dissolved and is considering hiring an attorney.
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