RICHMOND — Paul Bombardier has been puzzling over his application for unemployment benefits for a week now.
The IT contractor in Prince William County works with small businesses, nearly all of whom have closed up shop amid the pandemic, leaving him with little work and a dramatically reduced income.
Under the CARES Act passed by Congress last month, he and other self-employed and gig workers are newly eligible for Virginia’s unemployment insurance program, which previously was restricted to workers at traditional employers.
But the application process — clunky in the best of times — still hasn’t caught up to the new rules, official guidance is hard to find and phone lines at the state employment commission are swamped. That’s left applicants like Bombardier with lots of questions and little in the way of answers.
“I’m still trying to work through it on my own, using whatever reputable info I can find online or from peers who are going through the process,” he said. “But because of variations between states, there aren’t many concrete answers.”
As in most states, Virginia’s unemployment system wasn’t built for the historic surge of applications that followed widespread business closures. The program, which had been processing closer to 2,000 applications a week before the pandemic, has fielded an unprecedented 410,000 claims since March 15. That’s nearly as many as the state fielded in the last three years combined.
But Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration says the benefits system — which officials acknowledge is outdated and difficult to navigate — is holding up remarkable well, especially compared with other states that have contended with wholesale outages.
The Virginia Employment Commission reported recently that 218,000 people, more than half of applicants who applied since March 15, are already receiving benefits. And Megan Healy, Northam’s chief workforce adviser, said they’ve so far cut $328 million in checks to those workers.
She said the vast majority of applicants — about 80% — are receiving their first benefits checks or direct deposits within a week of applying and many applicants confirmed that they got their first payment within that timeframe.
The people benefiting from those quick turnaround times are applicants who meet the traditional criteria for benefits, mainly workers who were laid off or had their hours cut by employers who were paying payroll taxes. Because the state has data on their employment, their applications can be automatically checked and processed, she said.
Who is facing delays?
But Healy said other applicants can face long delays.
That category of workers whose claims must be manually processed includes all workers who are newly eligible for benefits following changes implemented as the pandemic spread: people who are out of work because they’re sick, under quarantine or unable to work because schools are closed and they must care for children.
“It’s working for most people,” she said. “It’s the trickier situations, where they quit or they’re 1099 workers, that we have to do further investigation.”
To deal with the crush, Northam says the state is adding call centers and temporary employees.
So far, no self-employed workers, independent contractors or other gig workers (think Uber and Lyft drivers) have had their claims processed, Healy said.
But she said that was changing. The state planned to launch a new portal where those workers can apply. (Northam said Friday it would go live that evening.)
But the process will still be cumbersome: Self-employed workers will be instructed to apply through the traditional application, which will be rejected. They will then be provided with instructions to apply through the new portal and submit documentation outlining their past earnings. Those applications will then have to be manually reviewed.
Healy said the state is aiming for a two-week turnaround. While those applicants will have to wait longer to receive their first relief payment, their first check will include benefits for all the weeks they were eligible and out of work.
How does that sound to Bombardier, the out-of-work IT contractor in Prince William?
“Wow. That’s certainly a process,” he said. “The only question I have, and I think it applies to more than the unemployment situation, and certainly more than just myself, is, ‘How were we so unprepared?’”