Abingdon, Virginia (AP) — For 26 years, Ernestray was a compressor manufacturer in southwestern Virginia, engaged in physically demanding work with night shifts on the factory floor. When the factory was closed in 2018, Ray applied for an unemployment allowance and received about $ 9,000.
Three years later, Ray is in court as the Virginia Employment Commission is trying to get the money back. As Ray’s Pro Bono lawyer sees, it is a fact that shows the spirit of a fundamentally dysfunctional agency.
“This is an institution that hates people who are supposed to serve, like teachers who hate children and librarians who hate books,” said Hugh O’Donnell, who has been unemployed for decades. .. Compensation work.
Over the past year and a half, the agency has been scrutinizing how some measures have been the worst in the country in response to the surge in unemployed claims due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, cases like Ray, interviews with lawyers, and state audits show that government agencies were plagued by various problems during the years before the pandemic. When hundreds of thousands of workers suddenly needed help, they were simply taken to the forefront.
Republican governor Glenn Youngkin has campaigned to overhaul government agencies, and Virginia Secretary of Labor Megan Healy, who is currently overseeing it, also said some issues were structural. increase. She has a good economy We also imposed a penalty Institutional inefficiency. External reviews warn of issues dating back nearly a decade, including major records management issues, poor staff morale, and dirty facilities.
During the pandemic, the agency Late In setup identification Allowing the benefits program and case backlog to stack, Class action. An information technology modernization project eight years behind schedule has exacerbated the situation, with claimants remaining dependent on physical mail and call centers, with recent audits still answering only 12% of calls. understood.
Virginia, with its relatively limited profits, also has significantly lower unemployment coverage, the third lowest average rate in the country in the last 20 years, according to an audit.
“The system has just broken. There is no other way to explain it,” said Martin Wegbright, head of proceedings at the Central Virginia Legal Assistance Association.
For Ray, the struggle with the agency began long before the flood of pandemic-related claims.
Deaf since birth, Ray spent decades building complex machines with Bristol compressors. Ray wore safety glasses, gloves, an apron, and steel toe boots during the shift, which could be even heavier if soaked in coolant leaks, Ray said in an interview with his niece’s interpreter.
Former colleague David Woodring called him a “gentleman” and honest “best man”, never missed a job and did a job that required a lot of skill.
Ray earned about $ 36,000 a year in his last year’s work at the company, despite receiving millions of incentives for taxpayers to fund. According to his case records, Ray’s wages qualify him for $ 378 a week for 24 weeks.
Wearing his hands and having a big whitebeard, 57-year-old Ray began to receive these benefits without any problems and began looking for a new job. During that time, I drove about 30 miles (48 km) one way to Bristol’s Employment Commission office. State Weekly Work-Search Document Requirements. He didn’t have a computer to do paperwork online.
When his benefits disappeared in May 2019, the staff instructed him for unknown reasons to continue reporting his job search details. After that, Ray was absent for a week due to a mild illness. After making the doctor’s note, he received a notice that he was deemed unable to work “for medical reasons” — the applicant must be eligible to work to receive benefits — and falsely I received the payment. The state wanted to get the money back.
O’Donnell, a former executive director of the Legal Aid Clinic, said none of them made sense. The doctor’s note contained in the long case file clearly states that Ray was not incapacitated.
Ray appealed, but according to his case, he appealed three weeks later. Fluent only in American Sign Language, he had a hard time reading small prints in government notices and understanding bureaucratic languages.
Ray’s proceedings have since proceeded through the Employment Commission’s appeal proceedings. At each stage, the state has fought him based on his late appeal, not on the merits of the case. According to O’Donnell, the commission never explained why it was seeking repayment, and at some point accused Ray of lacking diligence.
Commission spokeswoman Joyce Fogg refused to comment on the details of the case. Attorney General Mark Herring, a spokeswoman, refused to comment on the proceedings.
Secretary of Labor Healy and Supreme Committee officials defended the work of institutional employees who faced an unprecedented surge in applications in the pandemic and changed federal leadership and conflict. Including threats of murder, From an angry individual.
Despite a flood of commission-related complaints, state officials have so far shown little willingness to pursue drastic reforms.
Biting audit Announced by observers this month, it made 40 recommendations on changes and accused Democratic Governor Ralph Northam of taking too long to address the issue as pandemic-related claims surged. bottom. It also urged the General Assembly to do more, noting weak oversight from the Federal Ministry of Labor.
Yongkin, who took office in January, promised that agency overhaul would be a top priority, but so far he hasn’t given details on where he will start.
Ray and his niece say he couldn’t find another job, mainly because of his hearing loss. He is currently taking advantage of the social security disability allowance that began shortly after the unemployment allowance ended.
He said he had no money to repay the state and was constantly worried about his case.
“I lost my job, and it’s just like something that should have been in place to help me find something that turned into a bigger mess,” he said.