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special report

Fighting for VEC benefits: Alexandria woman's battle not unusual

'I need it to dig myself out of a gigantic financial hole'

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Tammy Potts VEC

Tammy Potts of Alexandria finally received some of the unemployment benefits she believes she is owed by the Virginia Employment Commission but is not giving up her fight.

Tammy Potts spent a year filing unemployment insurance claims and fighting for her benefits.

She finally received her first payment from the Virginia Employment Commission earlier this month, just weeks after InsideNoVa asked the agency about Potts’ case. But Potts said she has received only half of what she believes she’s owed. 

“It’s amazing, but here’s the thing, I’m like, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’” she said. 

Since the onset of pandemic-related layoffs in March 2020, the VEC has faced the unprecedented challenge of adjudicating over 1.7 million unemployment insurance claims, more than were filed in the state than during the 2000 and 2008 recessions combined. 

Thousands of Virginians who applied for benefits still have not received payments, giving rise to a class-action lawsuit by five women alleging the VEC denied them benefits. In response, Gov. Ralph Notham directed the VEC to invest $20 million to hire 300 additional staff, make technology upgrades and modernize the agency by Oct. 1. 

However, thousands of residents don’t have the luxury of waiting any longer to receive their benefits. And although Potts, of Alexandria, has received some of her benefits, she said it’s crucial she obtain the rest so she can also pay her rent, car loans, car insurance, student loans and other debts.

 “I need it to dig myself out of a gigantic financial hole,” Potts said. “I feel that I would not have been in this situation had I received answers from the VEC.”

Laid off in May 2020

Potts is a single mother of two elementary school children. She said she filed for unemployment May 13, 2020, the day after she was laid off from her job as contractor for staffing and employment company nTech, based in Maryland. The company had hired Potts to work for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria.  

But like many Northern Virginia residents, Potts said she was confused about where to apply for unemployment because over the prior eight years she had worked in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. In 2019, she had applied for unemployment benefits with the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

Potts said she initially applied to the D.C. employment office on accident because she had applied there previously. But Potts later learned she had to apply in the state where she last worked. 

“They told me I had funds there but they were going to transfer them to VEC,” she said.  But even after she filed her new unemployment insurance claim in June 2020 with the VEC, Potts said she never received those funds. 

Potts said the VEC sent her several notices stating she had no wages, with no record of her employment between 2017 and 2019. But according to Potts, she had worked those years, including six months in Maryland in 2019. 

“[The VEC] never added the out-of-state wages to these letters or total wages correctly until July 2021,” she said.

The first few months after filing her claim with the VEC, Potts said she spent hours on the phone waiting to speak to a representative. But there was rarely anyone available to take her call and the automated system would just hang up. 

“When I did get a chance to speak to someone they would tell her that they could not help … or that the issue had to be escalated up to a different section of the VEC,” she said.

Feeling as though she had no other options, in August 2020, Potts retained a free attorney from Legal Services of Northern Virginia, a nonprofit that provides free legal counsel.

“[My attorney] really tried for several months, she even got me a Zoom meeting with a person at the VEC who stated that they could help me with forms to possibly get ‘back’ unemployment,” Potts said. 

After speaking to the representative from the VEC, she reapplied but months later had not received any benefits.  Eventually, Potts said, her attorney contacted her with an offer from the VEC, which stated she could start receiving her benefits on the condition that she forfeit 10 months of back benefits. She decided that was not an option. 

Potts’ attorney then quit. Potts said the lawyer told her there was nothing more she could do. She didn’t give up, though. 

“I still have to pick up the phone or log into VEC every single week and file or they will close my account,” Potts said. 

Legal Services of Northern Virginia would not confirm or deny that it represented Potts. 

Legal services or customer service?

However, Alina Launchbaugh, the economic justice staff attorney at the nonprofit said that, in general, hundreds of area residents have turned to the organization for legal help because they were also denied benefits.  Launchbaugh also noted that many calls that come her way are from people who don’t necessarily need legal assistance but they just need help getting in touch with a VEC representative.

“Effectively, what we’ve been doing is being the VEC customer call center for clients who reach out to us,” Launchbaugh said. 

Launchbaugh’s organization started helping people contact the VEC initially because there was a need, but over time Launchbaugh said her contacts at the VEC have been less and less communicative with her about claimants' cases. Instead, Launchbaugh now tells people to contact their local legislators if they have trouble reaching a VEC representative. 

“Hopefully, in theory...the VEC’s local offices are starting to be opening up again, and it should be the responsibility of those local offices to be providing the assistance that is necessary to help people with their claims,” Launchbaugh said. 

Potts said she also reached out to her state delegate’s office for help.

And two weeks after InsideNoVa talked to the VEC’s spokesperson, Joyce Fogg, about Potts’ case, Potts received over five months of unemployment benefits, from December 2020 through May 2021.

“It was part of what I was hoping for,” she said. “But where is the check for May, June, July, August, September, October, November [of 2020]?” 

InsideNoVa asked the VEC whether it plans to pay Potts any additional benefits, but Fogg said the VEC does not comment on individual claimant’s cases. 

Potts said she is concerned she will have to keep jumping through hoops to receive her full benefits, but noted she thinks the pressure she’s putting on the VEC is working.  For now, she's glad she’ll at least be able to pay some of her bills and avoid eviction.

“I’m very relieved,” she said. “I strongly urge people that are in a similar situation to mine to never give up.”

 

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