This worker got jobless benefits; Virginia wants them back

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A Virginia man is fighting to hang on to $9,000 in unemployment benefits the state gave him when his compressor plant closed in 2018

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ABINGDON, Va. – For 26 years, Ernest Ray worked in southwest Virginia at a company that made compressors, in a physically demanding job that involved working night shifts on a factory floor. When the plant closed in 2018, Ray applied for unemployment benefits and received about $9,000.

Three years later, Ray is fighting the Virginia Employment Commission in court as the agency tries to get the money back. This is a case that, as Ray’s selfless lawyer saw it, reflects the ethos of a fundamentally passive agency.

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“Like the teacher who doesn’t like kids and the librarian who doesn’t like books, it’s an agency that doesn’t like people,” said Hugh O’Donnell, who took decades of unemployment. compensation work.

The agency has been under scrutiny for the past year and a half for a response that by some measures was one of the country’s worst cases in jobless claims due to the coronavirus pandemic. But cases like Ray’s, interviews with lawyers and state audits show that the agency was plagued by a wide range of problems for many years before the pandemic; They were only brought to the fore when hundreds of thousands of workers suddenly needed help.

Republican Gov.-Elect Glenn Youngkin campaigned on a promise to overhaul the agency, and Virginia Labor Secretary Megan Healy, who now oversees it, also says some of the problems are structural. She says the agency has long lacked adequate resources, thanks to a complicated federal funding formula that pays less when the economy is stronger and also penalizes the agency’s inefficiencies. External reviews have warned of problems almost a decade ago, including major records-management issues, low employee morale and unclean facilities.

During the pandemic, the agency lagged behind setting up some benefit programs and allowed a backlog of cases to pile up, triggering a class-action lawsuit. Eight years back an information technology modernization project exacerbated the situation, leaving claimants so dependent on physical mail and call centers that a recent audit found are still only answering 12% of calls.

Virginia, which has relatively limited benefits, also has a significantly lower attainment rate among the unemployed—with the third-lowest median rate in the nation over the past two decades, the audit found.

“The system is broken right now. There is no other way to describe it,” said Martin Wegbret, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.

President Joe Biden’s administration has said the pandemic has exposed long-standing challenges to the unemployment insurance system across the country, and that it needs sweeping reform.

For Ray, the conflict with the agency began well before the flood of claims related to the pandemic began.

Deaf by birth, Ray spent decades building complex machinery at Bristol compressors. During his shifts, he wore safety glasses, gloves, an apron and steel-toed boots, which sometimes became even heavier when soaked with leaking coolant, Ray explained in an interview with his niece. said in.

A former colleague, David Woodring, called him a “gentleman” and honest “top-of-the-line man” who never gave up and took up a job that required a great deal of skill.

Ray earned about $36,000 a year in his final year of work at the company, which closed despite receiving millions in taxpayer-funded incentives. Ray’s salary qualified him for $378 a week for 24 weeks, according to the record in his case.

Ray, 57, who has bad hands and a big white beard, began to receive those benefits without any problem, looking for a new job, and meanwhile working with an employment commission in Bristol. The office traveled a distance of approximately 30 miles (48 kilometres) to comply. State weekly job-finding documentation requirements. He didn’t have a computer to do the paperwork online.

When their benefits expired in May 2019, employees instructed them for reasons that are unclear to continue reporting their job-search details. Ray again missed a week due to a minor illness. After presenting a doctor’s note, he received a notice stating that he was deemed unable to work – an applicant must be able to work to receive benefits – “for medical reasons” and by mistake. had received his payment. The state wanted the money back.

O’Donnell, former executive director of the Legal Aid Clinic, said it didn’t make sense. The doctor’s note, which is included in the lengthy case file, clearly stated that Ray was not disabled.

Ray appealed, but was delayed by three weeks, according to his lawsuit. Fluent only in American Sign Language, he had trouble reading the small print of agency notices and understanding bureaucratic language.

Ray’s case has since been settled through the Employment Commission appeals process. At each stage, the state has fought against them on the basis of their late appeal and not on the merits of the case. The commission never explained its rationale for seeking repayment, O’Donnell said, at one point blaming Ray for alleged lack of due diligence.

Commission spokesman Joyce Fogg declined to comment on the specifics of the case. A spokesman for Attorney General Mark Herring declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Labor Secretary Healy and top commission officials have defended the work of the agency’s staff, which faced an unprecedented surge of applications amid the pandemic, changing federal guidance and clashing, including death threats, from jittery individuals.

Despite the flood of complaints related to the commission, state officials have so far shown little interest in pushing for comprehensive reforms.

A scathing audit released this month by a watchdog agency made 40 recommendations for changes and blamed the administration of outgoing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam waited too long to address the problems as claims related to the pandemic increased. It also noted the weak oversight of the federal Labor Department and urged the General Assembly to do more.

Youngkin, who took over in January, has promised that an agency overhaul will be a top priority, but has yet to release any details about where he will begin.

Ray and his niece say that they were not able to find another job because of their deafness. He is now receiving Social Security disability benefits that began well after his unemployment benefits ended.

He said that he does not have money to repay the state and is constantly worried about his case.

“I lost my job and then this is something that should have happened to help me find something else, which turned into a huge mess,” he said.

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