Lawsuit filed over delays at Virginia Employment Commission

A hiring sign shows in Wheeling, Ill., Sunday, March 21, 2021.  Americas employers unleashed a burst of hiring in March, adding 916,000 jobs in a sign that a sustained recovery from the pandemic recession is taking hold as vaccinations accelerate, stimulus checks flow through the economy and businesses increasingly reopen.   (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
A hiring sign shows in Wheeling, Ill., Sunday, March 21, 2021. Americas employers unleashed a burst of hiring in March, adding 916,000 jobs in a sign that a sustained recovery from the pandemic recession is taking hold as vaccinations accelerate, stimulus checks flow through the economy and businesses increasingly reopen. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Five women are suing the leader of the Virginia agency that handles unemployment benefits, alleging “gross failures” to provide needed help as required by law amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The class-action lawsuit was filed Thursday morning in federal court in Richmond on behalf of the plaintiffs by several legal aid groups and their pro bono partners. Named as the defendant is Ellen Marie Hess, head of the Virginia Employment Commission.

It alleges the commission has violated the rights of Virginians who have been abruptly cut off from benefits without due process or who have faced long delays in getting hearings to determine whether they are entitled to benefits.

“Legal Aid Works staff have been fielding calls from low-income applicants worried about the lack of response by the VEC, leaving them in legal limbo without payments or access to the appeals process, right when they need this help the most. We hope the lawsuit filed today will give these hard-working Virginians quick, tangible relief,” Ann Kloeckner, the executive director of Legal Aid Works, said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The agency has been swamped with an unprecedented flood of applications for benefits since the start of the pandemic. But problems have persisted for over a year, leading critics to say Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration has not done enough to resolve the issues.

Virginians in need of help and unable to get answers from the commission have turned to news reporters and social media, and flooded the offices of their local elected officials with calls for help.

In a news release announcing the lawsuit, the groups noted Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner recently wrote to Northam urging him to speed the distribution of unemployment benefits.