'We are in terrible need of help': Unemployed workers face delays in receiving benefits

BY JOHN REID BLACKWELL Richmond Times-Dispatch
1 hr ago


When the coronavirus pandemic forced John Clary to close his Henrico County hair salon nearly a month ago, he did what tens of thousands of other Virginians did: He applied for unemployment insurance benefits in an effort to help keep him and his family afloat during the crisis.

"I would say our income here is 95 percent gone," said Clary, who has run the Studio in the Garden salon with his husband and business partner Dan Chapman for more than 10 years.

Not only did the salon on Peachtree Boulevard near Libbie Avenue and West Broad Street close, the pandemic has temporarily cost Clary and Chapman their part-time business providing cosmetology services to a retirement community in Williamsburg.

Clary was hoping to get some rapid financial help from the state.

Instead, Clary has received no jobless benefits. And he says he has repeatedly hit a wall trying to navigate a government system that could not quickly adjust to the emergency situation, as well as the eligibility changes.

"My mortgage is due, plus bills and utilities, plus life insurance policies," said Clary, adding that he has been able to get forbearance on some bills, but not all. "We are in terrible need of help, but I am sure I am not the only one. My heart goes out to everyone who is going through this nightmare."

Clary and other unemployed workers across Virginia say they have struggled to file for - and receive - jobless benefits because the Virginia Employment Commission, which takes applications and processes claims, has been overwhelmed with telephone calls and online filers.

In Virginia, 410,762 people have filed for benefits in the past four weeks, roughly 9 percent of the state’s workforce. Nationwide, a staggering 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment in just four weeks.

"I know how many people need that assistance as soon as possible," Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday. "We will be able to provide back pay for those whose applications have taken longer to process."

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Independent contractors and gig economy workers may finally be able to receive unemployment benefits starting the week of April 20.

The Virginia Employment Commission is aiming to start paying the benefits to those workers, said Joyce Fogg, a VEC spokeswoman.

The funding comes from the federal government, which backed the expansion of unemployment benefits through the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act, passed by Congress late last month.

The law expanded for the first time unemployment benefits to a workforce classified as independent contractors or gig economy workers who traditionally have not been covered by unemployment insurance.

That meant the system faced a strain because of the expansion of benefits to cover people who were previously ineligible, such as those who are self-employed and those who are filing for benefits for the first time. Those benefits are supposed to be disbursed under a provision of the CARES Act called the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA program.

Another part of the federal money is for all eligible unemployed workers to receive up to an additional $600 per week in benefits for up four months. 

That money - on top of the typical weekly benefit of up to $378 - also will start flowing to laid off or furloughed workers this month, Fogg said. States are required to administer the federal unemployment benefits but many have been slow in dispersing the funds.

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Some self-employed and sole proprietors describe the process as confusing and frustrating at a time when they need the money the most. 

Kristina New, who makes her living by running an Airbnb in Falls Church, had to shut down her business in mid-March. She applied for unemployment benefits, but like other self-employed people she got a denial notice.   

"The aggravation is the federal government has said we will support people who are self employed and gig workers through the states, but the states have not been able to update their systems to allow that," New said. "I don’t really blame them. It is a programming change they have had to do, but they were not ready for it."

New received a notice from the Virginia Employment Commission that says the agency is "preparing to administer benefits under the PUA program and there will be additional steps in the application process that you will need to take before payments can begin. You have taken the first step by filing for the traditional/regular UI [unemployment insurance] program and being denied under that program."

The agency says the state is required to verify eligibility under the traditional rules for unemployment before allowing claimants to be considered for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

People who are seeking benefits should continue filing a weekly claim even if they have been denied, the VEC's Fogg said.

"Virginia just does not have it together - you can't get anybody on the phone," said Rebecca Rae, a cosmetologist who rents a work space in Mechanicsville.

Just like other cosmetologists, Rae had to shut down her business in mid-March. Rae applied for unemployment, but she, too, got denied as a sole proprietor.

"I appealed over a week ago," Rae said on April 14. "Nobody has called me, and I have not gotten any mail."

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Money is flowing to some unemployed people - the Virginia Employment Commission said it paid out about $100 million in unemployment insurance benefits during the week of April 6.

Weekly benefits range from $60 to $378. For the month of March, the average weekly benefit paid was $293.90. That does not include the up to $600 a week additional benefit that was part of the federal stimulus program, which unemployed and furloughed workers should begin receiving soon.

With its phone lines tied up by callers, the VEC said it is now hiring additional employees to work at its call centers. Its South Boston call center has added 10 workers to its staff of 41 and the call center in Grundy is adding 25 to its staff of 54. The agency also has contracted with a third party provider to help handle call center services, Fogg said.

But laid-off workers calling the state’s toll-free number to set up claims have complained they either can’t get through or wait for hours on hold. The online reporting system also is showing stress.

"Some days, one spends most of the day on these websites and applications with no return mail or call to let you know if what you are doing will help," said Clary, the Henrico hair salon operator.

"At this point, I feel that both state and federal governments have made promises to help self-employed people and small businesses, but they are not able to back-up those promises," he said.

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Other workers who have been furloughed or laid-off from jobs also have struggled with navigating the unemployment benefits system.

Bailey Anderson was among the 15,000 employees, including about 450 in Virginia, who were furloughed by automotive retailer CarMax Inc. on April 9. "It was really devastating," Anderson said.

She said she filed for unemployment benefits as soon as she got her furlough notice.

People who receive unemployment benefits are normally required to conduct a weekly job search to remain eligible. Northam announced in March that the job search requirement would be suspended effective March 15 because the coronavirus outbreak had forced so many businesses to furlough employees.

Anderson, however, said a notice she received from the VEC indicated she would need to do a weekly job search, even though she still is expecting to go back to work at CarMax once the furlough lifts.

"I think it is misleading," Anderson said. "A lot of people's employers are saying 'don't apply for other work.'"

Fogg confirmed that the requirement to do a weekly job search has been waived, but it has still showed up in some notices people get from the VEC. 

Danny Lewis, who manages an office supply company in Henrico and saw his hours cut in half because of the coronavirus, said April 14 that he had applied for reduced-hours unemployment benefits three weeks ago "and I have yet to see any money."

"I received a letter two weeks ago followed by another letter with a pin number about a week after that." he said. "All that said, still no money has been deposited."

"The process has been frustrating to say the very least," Lewis said. "I don’t think the government - be it state or federal - can sustain millions of people filing for unemployment. I don’t think it is a situation that is sustainable over period of two or three months, when right now it is not working for even one month."

jblackwell@timesdispatch.com

(804) 775-8123

John Reid Blackwell



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