RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A bill reforming a broken unemployment system is taking effect immediately but some changes will take longer to implement.
This week, lawmakers approved the accelerated timeline after Governor Glenn Youngkin proposed adding an emergency clause to the legislation. It means the bill will take effect as soon as Youngkin signs it, as opposed to later this summer.
“There is no sense in waiting for bills that we passed to take effect,” Youngkin told reporters at an event on Thursday. “We can’t afford to work in government time. I have a real sense of urgency for these initiatives.”
Among other things, the bill creates an “unemployment compensation ombudsman.” VEC Commissioner Carrie Roth said they’ll be referring to it as the “chief customer advocate.”
“So that people understand that this person is there to help them and really make sure that everything we are doing keeps the customer at the center,” Roth said. “For those people who need a little extra hand-holding, we’ll have regional offices across the commonwealth where we’ll be able to better serve them.”
Roth said they’ll be starting the recruitment process soon. She couldn’t give a precise timeline for when these reforms will be fully implemented.
“It’s a lot of work to be done but I think these are meaningful steps that will help continue to push us forward to reform how the agency works, make it more business-like and really change how we better communicate with our customers so they understand exactly how we can serve them,” Roth said.
The bill also directs the VEC to simplify instructions for claimants. State auditors previously found the materials the agency uses are overly complex and are contributing to the confusion.
Roth said, last week, staff started strategizing to make the system easier to understand. She said that process is also engaging non-English speakers.
The bill also requires employers to submit files electronically. Senator Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William), who sponsored the bill, said this will replace the old paper-based system that often slowed down the initial stage of the benefits process.
McPike said the bill creates a multi-agency task force to review successes and failures. He said it directs resiliency planning so the state will be better prepared to quickly ramp up staff during the next crisis.
Additionally, McPike said it creates a subcommittee of lawmakers to conduct ongoing oversight. He said they will be monitoring the implementation of this bill and more than 40 recommendations from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.
“Virginians called for help and, in their most dire time of need, we fell flat on our faces and that’s why this bill is so critical,” McPike said. “We want to make sure we get it done and we get it done right.”
The latest effort comes more than two years after the coronavirus pandemic bombarded the outdated unemployment system, building up backlogs that are still being resolved.
April Johnson is one of many Virginians who remain frustrated by the pace of progress.
Johnson said, with clear instructions, she could’ve avoided a mess. Instead, she said missing pay stubs during the initial application process have led to long delays with her claim.
“There is no reason why my claim should be almost five months behind at this point for something so simple,” Johnson said.
Unlike previous phases of the pandemic, Johnson said the problem isn’t getting someone at the call center to pick up the phone. Roth said their wait time is down to less than a minute.
But Johnson said, when a customer service representative does pick up, they don’t have answers.
“No one can tell you when it will be resolved,” Johnson said. “It’s basically just a call back, we don’t know what else to tell you.”
As her wait continues and implementation begins, Johnson has this message for the VEC: “If you have the means to expedite this, it is needed ASAP because too many people are hurting.”