Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Employment commissioner defends agency’s work amid pandemic

As the coronavirus devastates local economies, many people are learning how to apply for unemployment benefits for the first time. (WYDaily/Moody Air Force Base)
As the coronavirus devastates local economies, many people are learning how to apply for unemployment benefits for the first time. (WYDaily/Moody Air Force Base)

The head of a state agency that has come under scrutiny for its handling of unemployment benefits countered criticism from dozens of Democratic lawmakers, saying that “while there is room for improvement,” her staff has performed “admirably” during unprecedented times.

Virginia Employment Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess responded late Thursday to a letter sent earlier in the day by 34 House members and nine state senators that described a flood of complaints from constituents about problems with unemployment benefits and communication with the agency.

“We appreciate and share your concern for those Virginians who have reported difficulties in obtaining benefits and in reaching a member of the Commission staff,” she wrote in her letter.

But Hess defended the commission’s response to the economic fallout caused by the new coronavirus and measures intended to slow its spread, outlining some of the extraordinary demands it has faced.

In the past four months, VEC staff have averaged more than 13,000 hours of overtime a month, she wrote. The agency also had to work to increase staff in the unemployment insurance division, which had been cut by more than 40% since 2011 during record low unemployment, she said.

Call center staff answered an average of 28,000 calls per week in June and are now capable of answering 60,000 per week, she wrote.

“While there is room for improvement, the professional staff at VEC has worked admirably under exceedingly difficult circumstances,” she wrote.

In their letter, the lawmakers asked that the agency make the establishment of an online portal a top priority so that employers can provide required information in a timely manner.

Hess responded that while the VEC has had a portal in operation for years, the General Assembly passed legislation this year that delayed mandatory employer participation until January 2021.

The lawmakers also called for the prioritization of a VEC review by the General Assembly’s watchdog agency. A study had been ordered in 2017. Hess responded that “it is important to remember that the General Assembly directed the (Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission) to prioritize studies on gaming and casinos ahead of the VEC review.”

Hess said she was willing to work with the lawmakers to find ways to streamline the existing system.

“We stand ready to work with you and other legislators to deal with these complex issues affecting workers and businesses across the Commonwealth, and look forward to engaging in future conversations,” she wrote.


John Mangalonzo
John Mangalonzo
John Mangalonzo ( is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.

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