RICHMOND, Va. - A decades-old computer system and not enough staff to answer phones were two causes of the months-long delay some out-of-work Virginians experienced while waiting for help from the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Margo Faraq, of Caroline County, has been waiting five months to receive the unemployment benefits she believed she was owed.
"January, February, March, April, May. Nothing," Faraq told the CBS 6 Problem Solvers. "This isn't fair."
The single mom lost her job at the beginning of January and applied for benefits just four days later.
"I'm filing my weekly claim every Sunday, and it's saying back to me your file, your claim has been accepted," Faraq said. "And it's being processed. But then there's no payment, like, what's the issue?"
Faraq said she received a monetary determination letter from the VEC, but was told online there was an issue with her account.
Just last week, she learned her claim was denied but said she did not receive an explanation.
She's also struggled to get a VEC representative on the phone.
"I still don't know the outstanding issue on the account," she explained. "You could hear the phone hanging up. And I'm like, what is going on?"
Faraq is worried Virginia's outdated benefits system could be to blame for some of her issues.
"I've seen that on the unemployment site that they're using, like the system that's like 40 years old or something," Faraq said.
The 40-Year-Old System
The last VEC system upgrade took place in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, South Carolina, which was also hit hard by the pandemic with half of its hospitality industry jobs wiped out in one month, is using a system updated just four years ago.
The South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW) said in 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor offered a grant to any state that partnered together to modernize its unemployment insurance systems.
That fall, both Carolinas teamed up, chose a vendor, and upgraded.
In the first nine months, DEW estimated its new system saved workers more than 13,000 hours of labor and an estimated $865,000 a year.
Fast forward to 2020, South Carolina was one of the first states to implement the Federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, which provided 13 extra weeks of benefits to many.
Virginia lagged behind.
"We know our modernized system made the implementation of the programs a much quicker turnaround," a DEW spokeswoman said in a statement to the CBS 6 Problem Solvers. "Ultimately, our claimants benefited from this because we could process claims faster and pay out benefits faster to those who were found eligible."
"It was pretty simple," Rosalind Heyward, of Charleston, South Carolina, said about applying for and receiving benefits in South Carolina. "I was released on a Friday. I applied that Tuesday, and that following Tuesday, I had a check. And normally, that first week, they say, you don't get a check. So that first check came really, really quick."
The veteran also noted when she had issues, she was able to speak to someone on the phone.
South Carolina grew its call center staff by 12 times the number of employees prior to the pandemic.
In Virginia, the VEC added eight times as many staffers.
It's Not Perfect
But South Carolina's system, while updated, is not perfect.
When Heyward went to reapply for benefits in April, after completing a six-month temporary job with the federal government, she said she was locked out.
"I had issues with the system, accepting my claim I kept getting an error message," she said.
Heyward said she struggled to get someone to fix the problem because, she said, call center staff were not fully aware of how to handle a federal claim.
Seven weeks later, she finally received half of her payments.
While frustrated, she said she cannot imagine the months some Virginians have gone without even being able to speak to a representative on the phone.
"I'm praying for those people in that area because that's ridiculous," Heyward said.
Dr. Megan Healy, the chief workforce advisor for Governor Ralph Northam, oversees the VEC.
She told the CBS 6 Problem Solvers last month that the agency was in the process of modernizing its system, but had to put that effort on hold in March 2020 when the pandemic hit.
Healy also noted another reason those upgrades haven't happened was that the agency has been understaffed and underfunded for years since Virginia's unemployment rate before the pandemic was one of the lowest in the nation.
But in 2020, she said the VEC received 10 years' worth of unemployment claims in just one year.
As for Faraq, she's holding on to hope that her payments will come through soon and she'll be able to find a job.
"I have not given up," Faraq said. "I'm not going to give up."
The CBS 6 Problem Solvers reached out to the VEC about Faraq's claim, and have not yet heard back.
The agency has previously noted it cannot comment on individual cases.
A spokesperson did indicate the VEC was still on track to finish system upgrades before the end of 2021.
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