Now, a scathing audit says much of the blame lies in mismanagement coupled with limited oversight by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration.
“It is clear that further oversight and assistance is needed,” Lauren Axselle, legislative analyst with the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee, told lawmakers on Monday, recommending that lawmakers expand their role instead. than relying on the executive and the US Department of Justice. Workforce.
Throughout the pandemic, the Virginia Employment Commission, which administers the program, and the Northam administration, which oversees the agency and appoints its leadership, have played down widespread problems or blamed external factors beyond their control.
Instead, the report – based on in-depth interviews with experts, agency staff and employees – describes a perfect storm of more than a decade of mismanagement colliding with an unprecedented pandemic.
A massive IT upgrade was eight years late. The agency was understaffed to meet even the pre-pandemic workloads. The staff at the agency’s disposal were less efficient as many devoted themselves to tasks that modern computers have long made obsolete, such as sending out forms and letters and entering data manually.
“We are so dependent on paper… We have paper in every nook and cranny,” the report quoted an anonymous employee.
This led state officials overseeing the program to conclude that they were underfunded by the federal government at the same time that they were receiving more per claim than most other states.
And in either case, the report says, management and administration officials have taken no serious steps to increase staffing until more than a year after the start of the pandemic. And the report says the Northam administration has blocked some early steps the agency is exploring.
Among other things, the report says Northam’s cabinet did not grant an early application to set aside state hiring requirements to fill positions faster. This meant, for example, that part-time employees the agency wanted to move quickly to full-time positions had to first reapply for the position. An effort to bring in state workers from other agencies to help was limited to a voluntary request that attracted no takers, according to the report.
The agency only took serious steps to enlist outside help more than a year after the start of the pandemic, when hundreds of contract award staff were finally hired. Meanwhile, the backlog of claims had grown to nearly 100,000.
“Given the essential role of VEC during severe increases in unemployment – and the operational challenges that flow from it – future labor secretaries must effectively fulfill their role to ensure that the agency functions properly”, indicates the report.
In some cases, it was not clear that VEC management was aware of the extent of the problem, noting that the monthly performance reports submitted to Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess “did not contain information on the quality or the speed of unemployment insurance claims or the responsiveness of the call center ”.
The report also observed that a hands-off management style meant that many departments, including call centers where less than 3% of calls were actually answered, were not subject to performance expectations or targets. The report notes that the agency also does not have internal performance targets for fraud investigations.
The listeners suggested that future governors should play a more decisive and practical role. And they suggested that the legislature create its own dedicated subcommittee to oversee the program and implement reforms.
Neither Hess nor Northam Labor Secretary Megan Healy attended Monday’s presentation. Auditors told lawmakers they were advised not to participate due to an ongoing dispute over the long terms of compensation.
In statements and letters, Hess continued to defend the agency and did not address any potential mismanagement.
“I appreciate your gratitude to the extremely dedicated officials of the Virginia Employment Commission and the enormous volume of work they have produced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hess wrote.
Healy wrote in a two paragraph letter that she looked forward to “working together to implement your recommendations, protect Virginia workers, and reform this long neglected but incredibly important system.”
In a statement, she thanked the legislature for the report and highlighted signs of improvement in recent months. “Appeal times are reduced to less than two minutes and decisions have now reverted to pre-pandemic waiting times. VEC’s new computer system will be operational next week and we will continue to work on the backlog of appeals.