As the embattled Virginia Employment Commission has been scrambling to move through a massive backlog of unemployment claims, thousands more cases have been pouring in from jobless residents.

Staff who review disputed claims have been leaving the agency, and the General Assembly’s watchdog has sounded alarms about measures being taken by the commission to hasten the process in response. Many unemployed Virginians say the commission’s unresponsive call center has stopped picking up the phone — to the point where a judge overseeing the agency is being swarmed with calls instead.

All of that has piled up to create a confusing, byzantine system, some critics say, making it inaccessible to those who need it most.

“There’s very little clarity or predictability. They feel like they don’t understand where they’re at in the process,” said Del. Sally Hudson (D-Charlottesville), a labor economist at the University of Virginia. “Most of them are just waiting for a call that may someday come, but they don’t know when it’ll come.”

With a possible eviction crisis on the horizon, she and other lawmakers are now warning that the overwhelmed state agency must immediately enact overdue fixes to the system. If not, they say, they will be making it harder for the people who most need its help.

VEC Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess was not made available for an interview, and Joyce Fogg, a spokeswoman for the agency, declined to comment.

But Megan Healy, Virginia’s secretary of labor, noted that most individuals who apply for unemployment insurance — more than 80 percent — are paid within three weeks of applying for benefits. Compared to other states’ unemployment systems, Virginia ranks sixth in the country for responding to residents who qualify, she said, and more staff were being added to hear claims and work the phones.

“I think we’re doing amazingly well with people who are eligible, who filled out the application and do not have any flags on their account,” she said.

Yet the remainder of those dealing with the VEC have been left to wait for months for as little as a call back.

‘Stressed out’

Some of the tens of thousands of jobless Virginians in this backlog have spent months waiting for their claims to be reviewed by the VEC, while others were cut off from their unemployment benefits without notice. Many must often go through a complex adjudication process for the VEC to confirm they lost their jobs due to the pandemic and are in fact eligible to receive unemployment insurance.

Erika Holliday, a 39-year-old single mother of three, had been working in early 2020 as an independent contractor for a mental health services company, conducting in-person assessments at residential crisis centers or in people’s homes, she said.

But when the number of patients — and her contracts — dried up in April of that year, she turned to the VEC. Holliday applied for unemployment and received weekly checks of at least $378 through the summer. Six months later, she suddenly found her payments had stopped.

It wasn’t until last week, following a flurry of emails back and forth with a VEC officer, that she finally got an explanation for the money she was owed: Her former employer had been claiming Holliday quit her job, thus making her ineligible.

“This is what I paid into. I shouldn’t have to fight this hard for something I qualified for and deserve,” said Holliday, a licensed clinical social worker. “I shouldn’t be stressed out like this through the process, trying to keep things afloat.”

Holliday, who is now facing eviction, said she’s now owed $11,000 in benefits from the state.

A coalition of 13 advocacy groups across Virginia have called on the state to use funds through the American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s covid-19 relief program, to give $1,000 to each resident with an unemployment claim that is unresolved for at least one month.

Following a lawsuit from five unemployed Virginians, both Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and a federal judge directed the VEC in May to make its way through a backlog of 92,000 cases — likely including Holliday’s claim — by Labor Day.

Healy said the agency has been making steady progress on that backlog, nearly doubling the number of cases it goes through weekly from 5,700 to 10,000. With a $20 million commitment from Northam, the VEC is also hiring 300 additional adjudication officers to review disputed cases and make up for 28 percent turnover among staff.

Yet, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), which serves as a watchdog for state lawmakers, warned in a meeting earlier this month that VEC’s efforts to reduce the backlog could lead to “negative downstream effects if accuracy is being sacrificed for the sake of expediency.”

“The narrative that casts VEC’s performance in this area as entirely positive may not be presenting the full picture,” said Lauren Axselle, a project manager overseeing a study into the VEC.

If adjudicators do not review a case correctly, someone could be paid less or more than they deserve, or be denied unemployment benefits when they do in fact qualify. Healy said while adjudicators normally go through 18 months of training, they have instead been going through abridged preparations of several weeks to focus on a specific type of issue or part of the process.

Critics of the VEC also say shifting labor policies — such as a reinstated requirement that claimants be actively searching for work — mean a growing number of new adjudication cases are loading up the pile.

“We want to fix the system,” said Jeff Jones of the Legal Aid Justice Center. “It’s great to get all these people paid, but we want people to be paid moving forward.”

As of July 17, the VEC had reduced the backlog of 92,000 unresolved cases down to about 23,300, according to court filings. But the VEC has not publicly released the number of new cases that have been added in the meantime. Some calling for changes to the commission have estimated it was at least 30,000 at the start of the month.

“We have no idea what the inflow or outflow of this pipe looks like,” Hudson said. “It’s hard to solve a problem when you aren’t measuring it. What gets measured gets fixed.”

Hudson said state lawmakers have been forced in the meantime to gauge the agency’s progress with a different metric: The calls and emails that pour into their offices every day, from constituents across Virginia who remain caught in the system.

‘No one answers’

Maryam Mustafa, an organizer with ACE Collaborative in Arlington, said that one of the most fundamental problems — beyond cases taking weeks to be resolved — is that it has been nearly impossible for unemployed residents to get a response from VEC.

Her group, which works with working-class Asian and Asian American communities, has tried to assist dozens of people, including some with limited digital skills or English proficiency, in navigating Virginia’s unemployment system.

When some people have tried to enter their Social Security Numbers or other information digitally, an online platform has instructed them to call the VEC.

“They must figure out the source of the problem by calling the customer rep number, but no one answers the phone,” Mustafa said.

During JLARC’s July 6 briefing before lawmakers, Axselle also sounded alarms about the VEC’s call center. She said agents were responding to only “a small minority” of incoming calls, and that by some metrics, the center is doing worse now than it did during the peak of the pandemic.

Judge Henry E. Hudson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, who oversaw the lawsuit against the VEC, said his own office had also been receiving calls from frustrated claimants who could not get through to the agency’s own phone lines.

Those individuals, he wrote in a court filing Friday, “have reported either their calls were either unanswered, their messages not returned, or no response to their inquiry was received.”

The VEC said in other filings this week that it was in the process of setting up a second call center, to be staffed by at least 300 new agents and operated by the consulting firm Deloitte. Those agents, who normally receive several months of training, would also receive an expedited week of training and then begin work on Aug. 9.

Healy noted that both changing federal requirements and Virginia’s labor laws have complicated the process. She acknowledged some aspects of the unemployment system have been rocky.

“The challenges during the pandemic have been tough. We’re still going through a pandemic and making sure jobless Virginians are being paid,” she said. “This past year, I’m pretty proud of the VEC for the work they’ve done.”

But for Mustafa, the ongoing fixes to the VEC may be too little, too late. With bills coming in, rent due, and the eviction moratorium put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention due to expire, time is running out, she said.

“A lot of people are being told to wait,” she said, “and you can’t really wait on this. How long can you keep delaying?”