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Unemployed hospital worker waiting for benefits says VEC troubles explain delays

Unemployed hospital worker waiting for benefits says VEC troubles explain delays
Posted at 1:29 PM, Sep 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-25 13:29:47-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- It's been a rough week for the Virginia Employment Commission after a blistering government report found troubling issues throughout the agency that has been, in no small part, crucial in helping Virginians get through the pandemic.

It's even rougher on the tens of thousands of Virginians waiting for their benefits claims to be assessed.

That includes an unemployed hospital worker who says apparently no one at the VEC can get to the bottom of her case.

Denise Atkinson-Gary has been in limbo for almost a year and a half because the Virginia Employment Commission has not acted on her unemployment claim and even sent contradictory determinations about her eligibility.

"I have been calling, but it's hard because you cannot get in contact with them,” said Atkinson-Gary. “When I went on the chat feature, I was right there at the beginning of the queue. When it got to me, it just cut off."

The housekeeping worker was laid off by McGuire VA hospital in April 2020 after an ankle injury left her unable to do heavy work and she was told there was no job that could accommodate her.

The VA initially misfiled the date of her termination, but since then, the VEC has offered conflicting advice on the rare occasions she's spoken to someone.

"The representatives that I talked to, they did admit that they had dropped the ball on my claim," said Atkinson-Gary.

She actually received two letters that had been sent on the same day this past April that offered two different takes on whether she was eligible for benefits: one said she was, the other that she was not.

Like many Virginians, Atkinson-Gary was shocked to learn from a recent government watchdog report how far-reaching the chaos at the VEC is. More than 100,000 claims remain unresolved, 46% of adjudicator positions, the ones that decide whether you get benefits, are vacant, call centers answer just a fraction of calls and a computer system upgrade is more than eight years behind schedule.

Atkinson-Gary says she wonders about accountability at the VEC. She points out that she actually sent an email to the woman who has been in charge there for seven years. To her great surprise, VEC Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess responded.

"We talked through email,” Atkinson-Gary said. “And she assigned a person to my case, but it fell through the cracks once again."

Atkinson-Gary says that exchange has defined her VEC experience.

In response to an email about Atkinson-Gary's situation and that of another claimant, VEC spokeswoman Joyce Fogg replied:

"If you resign due to a medical condition, your claim must be reviewed by a deputy. If you are unable and unavailable for work as a result of a medical condition, you do not qualify for unemployment insurance. If you do not have a COVID-related separation, you are not eligible for PUA. If you are found ineligible for benefits, you can appeal. Both of these claimants were contacted and have been contacted again."

Atkinson-Gary acknowledges that at the start of the pandemic, her underlying health condition and having a child at home because schools were closed, left her unable to work.

She now has a plea for Commissioner Hess.

"My message to her will be when you pass on a person's claim to someone, just stick with it and make sure it's going down the line and is being taken care of and we're not being swept aside,” said Atkinson-Gary. “Just stay on it. That's what I will personally, ask her to do."

Atkinson-Gary says she is appealing her case at the VEC.

CBS6 has asked repeatedly over many months now to speak with Ellen Marie Hess.

Gov. Northam says he has full confidence in her performance but has resisted making her available to the media.