Faced with severe budget cuts, the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) finds itself with fewer workers and resources to deal with growing numbers of unemployed. Last week, the commission announced 236 jobs will be cut by Sept. 30, and Northern Virginia officials recently announced the consolidation of two offices.
The VEC depends entirely on federal funds. Last year, its budget was cut 17 percent. The commission has abolished 700 jobs in the past 15 months, including more than half the jobs in its employment services division, which helps people find work. For the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, VEC officials say they expect another 12 percent budget cut.
In Northern Virginia, 39 of 76 positions have been cut and seven area offices have been closed since the VEC began trimming employes and services in anticipation of last year's budget reductions.
Currently, Northern Virginia is served by the area VEC headquarters near Seven Corners, which handles unemployment benefits and job referrals; an Old Town Alexandria office, which handles unemployment benefits only; and a job placement center on Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria. The Mount Vernon Avenue office opened in April with help from the City of Alexandria, which is providing free space and paying utilities.
By the end of this month, however, the Seven Corners and Old Town offices will be consolidated into a new office at Merrifield in Fairfax County. The move is expected to save about $500,000 and will not involve any staff reduction, VEC officials said.
The office closings, staff cutbacks and increasing unemployment throughout the state have created a greater workload. Last February, statewide unemployment hit a high of 8.1 percent. Although it dropped shortly afterward, it has begun creeping up again, according to state officials. July figures have not yet been released, but in June unemployment stood at 7.4 percent statewide, compared with 7.1 percent in May.
Even in Northern Virginia, where unemployment traditionally has hovered around 4 percent, officials report slight increases. In June, unemployment in Northern Virginia was 4.6 percent, compared with 4.4 percent in May and April. The area hit a high in February, when the unemployment rate was 4.8 percent.
Despite relatively low unemployment in this area, local officials say the cutbacks in unemployment services and staff have taken a toll on local offices.
At the Seven Corners office, employment services manager Wesley Caison estimates that his staff members see 25 percent more job seekers now than a year ago, in part because they have taken on work formerly handled by offices that closed.
"We fill up every appointment almost every day," Caison said. Each of the office' 15 employment interviewers handles about 13 appointments a day, he said.
The staff reductions, officials say, have forced the agency to trim the services it offers.
"All the areas of the employment service are suffering," state employment services Director William Dillon said last week.
For example, in January the employment services division abolished all its counseling positions, and trained supervisors to do the work. Unlike the full-time counselors, however, the supervisors have limited time to devote to their new duties. At Seven Corners, four supervisors who now are counseling spend just half a day each week on the task.
"The counseling services have suffered drastically," said Paula Clutter, a former counselor who now works as an employment interviewer at Seven Corners.
Unfortunately, Clutter added, the counselors have been eliminated at a time when their services are badly needed because the economy is forcing many people to consider career changes.
"They're not getting the kind of assistance they were formerly offered," she said.
As a result of budget cuts, many VEC employes have found themselves facing the same frustration and anxiety as their clients. Some, like Clutter, had to take lower-level positions when their jobs were abolished.
"Very few (VEC) people have come through this situation in the last two years better off," Clutter said.
Switching from counseling to interviewing was frustrating, she said, because interviewers usually cannot counsel persons over long periods.
"We have several former managers who've had to be demoted to supervisors, and we have several former supervisors who've had to be demoted to interviewers," said Rick Slusher, who supervises interviewers at Seven Corners. Slusher was manager at the VEC Manassas branch office until it closed last January.
In some cases, VEC officials said, employment services workers who had been laid off in the series of cuts that began last October have been called back. Other workers, whose positions were abolished, have been forced to take VEC jobs they have not done in years, and in some cases, jobs they have never done.
To help deal with the problem, Dillon said, the VEC set up the counselor training program for supervisors and a similar program to train interviewers.
Only 11 of the positions which must be abolished by the end of September are in Northern Virginia, and other VEC jobs already have been found for 10 of the workers who would be affected, Caison said. But because of the state layoff policy, any number of area employes could lose their jobs to more senior workers around the state whose positions are abolished.
"There are some people right now who are worried about whether they will have a job in October," Clutter said.
The new Merrifield office, at 8000 Lee Highway, is scheduled to open late this month or early next month. It will be the only Northern Virginia location handling unemployment benefits. On Oct. 1, however, another office is scheduled to open in Woodbridge, and will handle unemployment benefits and job placement. Rent and utilities for the Woodbridge office will be provided free by Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park.