RICHMOND, Virginia – As thousands of unemployed Virginians continued to wait months for news of their claims, the South Carolina Department of Employment and Manpower (DEW) credited a Unemployment insurance system updated to have helped them process a greater volume of claims in a period of time amid the pandemic.
In Virginia, a decades-old system and under-staffed were two major backup causes the VEC encountered when trying to deal with the influx of complaints, according to Dr. Megan Healy, chief adviser of the hand. -work of Governor Ralph Northam.
The backlog, affecting hundreds of Virginians who contacted CBS 6 Problem Solvers.
Virginians like Maurice Nance – who hasn’t received a salary for 10 months.
“I suffer from depression and anxiety. I can barely sleep,” Nance said. “It just took a toll on me.”
Father-of-three Pamplin applied for unemployment benefits from the Virginia Employment Commission in August 2020 after he said he was laid off from his job as a solar panel technician amid the pandemic.
“You kept smiling because you have three boys. You can’t let them see you – you can’t,” Nance said.
Three weeks after filing, and wordlessly, Nance said he contacted the VEC where he said there was some confusion about which program he should file under.
“I was like, ‘what’s going on? I barely get there, “you know? And I kept calling them. And I was doing my job every day to call them and try to get in touch with someone,” Nance said. .
Months later, after dozens of unanswered calls and attempts to reach someone, Nance finally learned that his account had been flagged as fraudulent, but he still doesn’t know why.
“I got my papers to show I was fired and got all of my information,” Nance said. “And they said to me, ‘Yes, we are still working on it. We are still working on it.’ And it’s May and you’re still working on it? ”
Meanwhile in South Carolina
Over 300 miles away, Brooke Rowlett, a resident of Irmo, South Carolina, has been enjoying a modernized system for the past four years.
“I can’t imagine going seven, eight months without payment,” Rowlett said. “I would be desperate.”
The mother of two young children had been receiving unemployment benefits intermittently since March 2020 through the South Carolina Department of Employment and Manpower, known as DEW.
“This money is very important. I don’t know how people got without it,” Rowlett said.
In the fall of 2017, South Carolina joined North Carolina in modernizing its unemployment insurance systems with a grant from the Department of Labor.
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DEW spokesperson Heather Biance said that in the first nine months of implementing the new benefit system, they were able to save more than 17,000 hours by automating initial claims.
What about any complaints with problems? The system saved 4,000 hours to “automatically judge” these complaints.
“What we found in the pandemic is that having an automated system allowed us to process a greater volume of claims in a shorter time frame,” Biance said.
South Carolina was also among the first states to implement new federal programs during the pandemic.
Biance said their modernized system played a huge role in this regard.
Back in Virginia
Dr Healy said the last time the VEC system was modernized was in the 1980s.
She added that the decades-old system was supposed to be updated in June 2020 but work was put on hold in March due to the pandemic.
“So we’re a little late, but we’re working hard to get this system fully operational by the end of this year,” Dr Healy said.
In addition to the system, Healy said there was a staff shortage overwhelmed by the influx of complaints – which stood at 1.6 million complaints received since March 2020. That’s more than ten times the volume. of the previous year.
In South Carolina, on the other hand, DEW has received comparatively fewer claims with just under 900,000 since March 2020, more than seven times what it received in 2019.
But Biance said the agency had handled higher demand by bringing in workers – at the peak of hiring, going from 50 call center staff to more than 600. That’s an increase more than 12 times the number of workers.
Compare that to VEC, which in February 2021 increased the number of employees at its call center by eight, according to a spokesperson for VEC.
In May 2021, following a settlement in a lawsuit against VEC, the agency announced it had hired a private sector partner with 300 additional employees to investigate the claims issues.
However, in April 2020, DEW was able to extend the hours of operation of its call center by also adding Saturday hours.
And hearing that voice on the other end of the phone made all the difference to callers like Rowlett.
“It meant to the world that someone was actually going to try to stand up for me,” Rowlett said.
But while things started off seamlessly for Rowlett, they weren’t always that way. As of the end of March, she missed eight payments after filing a new year of benefits.
“I wonder why, why my payments were cut off, and they couldn’t get to me. And, you know, with two kids, that money saved me money,” Rowlett said.
She said she had called up to ten times, once on hold for up to two hours.
“They’d be like, ‘oh, well, they’re just treating it,’” Rowlett said.
But on Thursday, after contacting his local senator, the funds arrived.
“Now I run and pay my bills,” Rowlett said.
Meanwhile, just a few months a year after his first filing, Nance continued to wait.
“It’s really not a good idea for the state of Virginia,” Nance said.