Three months ago, unemployment claims in Virginia surged to record levels. Although those numbers are now on the decline, many Virginians are still struggling to get the money they need to live amid the coronavirus crisis.
Alexandra Koussis of Leesburg is one of the people who is still looking for that money. She was poised to begin working four different jobs before the coronavirus crisis hit, but now instead has had no income for months. Koussis said she was hired to work for Instacart, at various jobs at Oatlands Plantation and the Dulles Town Center, and to help with wedding catering.
“Everything was ready to rock and roll and ‘bam,’ coronavirus hits,” she said.
Once Koussis felt comfortable filing for unemployment a few weeks into the crisis, she said she initially received a letter from the state notifying her that she was ineligible for unemployment. Then, after re-applying, she said the state informed her that she was eligible to receive $158 a week for 39 weeks, in addition to the extra weekly $600 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security or CARES Act
But, Koussis said, she has yet to get a single paycheck in the mail. And she is not alone.
Koussis’ case is one of 849,486 initial claims for unemployment benefits the Virginia Employment Commission has processed since March 15. The state has approved and issued payments to three quarters of those claimants, paying out a record $4.2 billion in the past three months. VEC Spokeswoman Joyce Fogg said the other 25 percent of claimants have not received checks either because of their own user error while filling out forms, because of errors within the state’s system or because the claimant simply didn’t qualify.
By the end of the first week in April, the Virginia Employment Commission reported that the number of initial unemployment claims from the previous three weeks totaled 306,143—a number that equaled the total number of claims filed from January 2018 to March 2020. Those numbers began to fall the second week in April. Weekly continued claims—applications from people who file each week for ongoing unemployment benefits—from mid-March to mid-May also rose from about 22,000 to 404,000, but have been falling for a month.
But out of all those hundreds of thousands of claims for unemployment benefits, a large portion of claimants have either received only some of the money they felt they were entitled to or have yet to receive any of it.
Del. Wendy Gooditis (D-10) said the emails and calls to her office regarding unemployment benefit issues are coming in constantly and that the problem is only getting worse. Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-33) said 150 different people have contacted her with concerns surrounding the matter.
For Gooditis, assisting people like Kousis feels “helpless,” since the Virginia Employment Commission, she feels, is “woefully underfunded” and therefore understaffed. Gooditis said that’s why the state might be inadequately processing unemployment claims and appeals. She pointed to the close to 80,000 unemployment benefit appeals the state now faces.
“People want what they have been told they are owed,” she said, noting that it’s hard to blame the state for the disarray because it has been tasked with processing close to a million unemployment claims since March. Gooditis said she’s working to get more funding to the commission to address with the problems.
Boysko echoed Gooditis’ comments toward the state, emphasizing that the commission has paid unemployment benefits within 14 days to 91 percent of the Virginians who qualified. Boysko said that when looking at the scale of what’s being asked of the state right now, occasional issues are understandable.
“I’m very proud of the employment commission for the work that they have done,” she said, noting that the state will be launching a revised Virginie Employment Commission website within days.
To help her constituents, Boysko has reached out to the Virginia Employment Commission directly and is working with the state to address issues surrounding eviction concerns, food insecurity and more. She’s also asking the governor’s team to clarify questions on the matter.
“There’s a whole myriad of things we’ve been trying to advocate for our residents,” she said. “They’re not a number, this is whether or not somebody can put food on their table.”
Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton (D-VA-10) is also working to help her constituents through the state-run process. She said the number one issue she has heard of in recent weeks involves Loudouners not receiving their unemployment checks.
Wexton said she was working to help her constituents in multiple ways—by walking them through the application process to ensure they make no errors in their paperwork, by nudging the state and by working through Congress to pass the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES, Act.
Helping Virginians through the filing process has proven beneficial for some, Wexton said, since many claimants simply are inputting incorrect information in the state’s online system. Fogg said one noticeable mistake many claimants make is entering their social security numbers incorrectly.
Another problem relates to continued weekly claims. Wexton said that one of her constituents wasn’t getting her checks because she was updating the same week with new information every seven days, rather than updating the current week with that information. For reasons like that, Wexton has volunteered to help people through the entire filing process from beginning to end.
“Sometimes that will solve a lot of issues,” she said.
For cases that involve error on the state’s side, Wexton also sometimes contacts the Virginia Employment Commission directly to better grab the state’s attention. But, she said, that doesn’t always work.
Congress in May also passed the HEROES Act, which proposes to extend the period people receive an additional $600 in their unemployment checks through January 2021. Wexton said Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell appeared before the House Committee on Financial Services last week and asserted that it would be detrimental to the nation’s economy to not extend those $600 weekly payments to the unemployed.
“We are definitely fighting for that,” Wexton said about the bill, which is now under review in the Senate.
For now, those grappling with the unemployment system will be forced to continue living the most frugal lives they can. Koussis said she has been living “very, very carefully” and that while she has saved some money, her funds have been dwindling.
“Sometimes you have to go hungry,” she said.
Those struggling can also apply for one of thousands of jobs now available in Virginia. According to the Virginia Employment Commission, there were 400,000 job vacancies posted on the Virginia Workforce Connection website as of June 19.
While those jobs and more exist, the state has flagged for review more than 12,000 reports of claimants who have been offered, but have declined, opportunities to go back to work. More than 79,000 cases are pending administrative review, many of which involve circumstances in which a claimant reported being out of work for a reason other than being laid off or furloughed, or in which an employer has disputed the claimant’s reason for being out of work.