Gov. Ralph Northam (D)

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) during a March 17, 2020 conference.

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Following months of complaints from laid-off workers, Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday he was taking steps to expand the Virginia Employment Commission's ability to process complex unemployment claims.

While data show Virginia has done quite well in quickly processing simple unemployment benefits for eligible individuals as applications surged amid the pandemic, the state has recently been dead last for timely processing of certain claims that require additional adjudication.

In a directive signed Tuesday, Northam wrote that “we must do more to ensure that Virginians’ unemployment benefit claims are resolved in a timely manner and that those who are eligible for benefits receive them quickly. VEC must have access to and mobilize additional staff and funding to carry out this critical role.”

The order directs the commission to increase the number of adjudications being processed per week from 5,700 to 10,000 by June 30, and to 20,000 by July 31.

In a news release, Northam's office said that would be done in part by finalizing a $5 million contract for over 300 additional adjudication officers. The directive also tells the commission to work with the state's human resources agency to identify non-VEC state workers who can temporarily assist.

It further orders the commission, which uses a 41-year-old benefits system, to complete a modernization project to launch a new system by October. And it directs the agency to hire staff and upgrade and enhance technology to improve call wait times.

Complaints from Virginians unable to get through to customer service call centers in a timely way — or at all — have been widespread over the past year.

The governor's announcement came on the same day a judge was holding mediation talks in a federal lawsuit filed last month over the processing delays.

The lawsuit alleged the commission had violated the rights of Virginians who had either applied for benefits and gotten no response or who had their benefits abruptly halted and faced lengthy delays in having their case adjudicated.

Jeff Jones, a spokesman for the Legal Aid Justice Center, one of the firms representing the plaintiffs, said the parties had reached an agreement Tuesday, which the judge still must approve. If approved, he said the judge was expected to enter an order later in the week that would put the lawsuit on hold while the commission worked to meet the order's terms.

“This is a really good step in the right direction,” he said.

Megan Healy, Northam's chief workforce development advisor, said that while the legal process remained underway, the administration was hopeful for a positive outcome.

Asked if the changes Tuesday's directive will implement had come quickly enough, Healy emphasized the enormous challenge the past year had presented, with both a surge in applications for benefits and a slew of new federal programs to implement. She said the directive had been in the works for a couple of weeks.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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