The coronavirus has changed the landscape of employment for workers everywhere, including in Virginia. Within a few days of the first COVID-19 cases in March 2020, businesses shuttered, leaving millions out of work. Unemployment insurance (UI) claims soared overnight, and the federal government stepped in to increase benefits in terms of pay and length. As the pandemic continues, it is essential to stay on top of UI's many changes, as there may be an extension of benefit programs on the horizon, including another round of government stimulus checks.
Eligibility for UI in Virginia
Workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own can file UI claims with the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC). Employers pay for this assistance through their taxes under the Virginia Unemployment Compensation Act; workers' benefits do not come from their earnings. To receive UI benefits, applicants must meet weekly eligibility qualifications regarding how their termination occurred and how much money they earned while working.
To qualify, applicants must have made a minimum of $3,000 in two quarters during the base period.
The state calculates the amount and duration of benefits through the former employee's regular base period, which is the initial four of the last five completed calendar quarters before filing a claim. Those without enough benefits during a standard base period can qualify under an alternate base period, which is the last four completed calendar quarters at the time of filing. The law dictates when the base period occurs, and it does not change during the length of the UI claim. To qualify, applicants must have made a minimum of $3,000 in two quarters during the base period.
Separation and UI Approval
Employees who were let go due to lack of work or a reduction in force lost their jobs through no fault of their own, so they meet the state's UI termination requirements. Fired employees or those who have quit voluntarily cannot usually receive UI benefits, but there are exceptions. Workers fired due to a lack of skills or for whom the job was not a good fit can still receive benefits. But if there was misconduct, such as a substance abuse issue, chronic lateness, a failure to show up or negligence, the unemployed person cannot receive benefits.
Those who quit their jobs usually don't meet UI qualifications, particularly if they voluntarily walked away without good cause. If they had a reason to leave, such as sexual harassment by an employer, dangerous working conditions, discrimination or they followed a military spouse to their next assignment, they may likely be allowed to receive UI benefits. The VEC researches circumstances like these by contacting employers and claimants to make an assessment.
Virginia's UI Benefit Amount
Unemployed Virginians can receive a weekly benefit amount from $60 to $378. To qualify for the maximum amount, they must earn at least $18,900.01 in two quarters of the base period. The payments can last from 12 to 26 weeks, depending on the amount of money earned by the claimant. If it is a time of high unemployment, there may be an extension and increase in benefits by the state or federal government. All claims are in effect for one year.
Applicants face a waiting period of one week after filing their claim, provided they meet all of the eligibility requirements. The waiting period is not a reduction in the benefit amount; claims begin the Sunday of the week in which filing occurs.
The CARES Act and Virginia UI
During the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government has offered help to millions of unemployed people across the country with the introduction of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act. Implemented in 2020, it gave those who were ordinarily ineligible for UI the opportunity to collect benefits. One aspect of the CARES Act, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) fund, made money available to independent contractors who usually don't receive UI benefits.
PUA claimants are awarded benefits until March 13, 2021. However, Congress hopes to extend the program after that date.
Claimants can receive Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which amounts to an extra 13 weeks of benefits for Virginians whose UI benefits would otherwise have ended. This program also ends on March 13, 2021, but Congress hopes to extend it as well. The CARES Act initially provided an extra $600 a week to all UI applicants displaced by the pandemic, which ended on July 25, but may add up to $400 a week to UI, PUA, and PEUC benefits in upcoming weeks, as much of the population still waits to go back to work. Also included were stimulus checks in March and December, which may reoccur with the next round of CARES Act extensions.
How to Apply for Benefits
To file a UI claim in Virginia, the applicant must send their personal and employment information to the VEC, including:
- Social Security number.
- Contact information of the employer they worked with over the past 18 months, including names, addresses and phone numbers. This also applies to non-Virginia employers.
- Dates of employment in the last 18 months.
- Union contact information, if they worked through a union.
- Alien registration number, if they are not U.S. citizens.
Incomplete information will cause a delay in benefits, so claimants should be prepared to input the information when filing their claim, which they can do seven days a week. The process takes about 45 minutes to complete on the VEC's website. Applicants also can apply by contacting the VEC Customer Contact Center at 866-832-2363. Agents are available from 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Getting First Unemployment Claim Benefits
If the state approves the initial claim, it will be a week from that approval before UI payments kick in. Claimants must continue to certify their claims weekly; if they don't, they will not receive payments even if they are qualified and eligible for them. Claim weeks end on or after midnight on Saturday. A claimant cannot certify for the week until that time.
The claimant certifies for benefits a week after their application for benefits. It can happen no later than 28 days after the date the unemployed person has applied for UI. For example, workers who filed for benefits on June 1 must certify their payment claim no later than June 29.
Continuing Weekly Claim Certification
The person collecting UI benefits must certify for payments every subsequent week after that. When their claim week ends, they must do this within 28 days from the Friday of the previous claimed week. In order to keep receiving benefits, the claimant must do this until the claim has run out, they return to work or the benefit year ends.
Those who fail to file on time – within the 28-day period of the prior claim – will have to call the VEC for reinstatement. They will lose benefits for the weeks between the last claim filed and the week they call VEC unless they can show good cause for not filing on time.
Receiving Unemployment Benefits
Virginia allows claimants to receive benefits in one of two ways: through a state-issued debit card or by direct bank deposits. It takes about two days to process a claim and release the funds.
For direct bank deposits, the state asks claimants to input their bank information when first applying. This will include the bank routing number, which is the first nine digits at the bottom of a check, and their account number, which is from five to 17 digits long and can appear in different places on a check depending on the issuing bank.
Appealing a Refusal of Benefits
The state does not guarantee unemployed people benefits, and in some instances, may refuse them financial assistance. When it does, it sends a letter to the applicant explaining its determination. Anyone can appeal a refusal. In its letter to the applicant, the VEC includes instructions on how to do this and informs them of their rights and the final date on which to appeal the decision.
The former employer may also file an appeal on benefits already paid to a claimant. If the employers wins, the applicant may have to pay back some or all of that money.
The claimant must attend scheduled appeal hearings and notify the state if they have stopped claiming benefits or have moved. During the appeals process, the claimant should continue looking for work while continuing to certify their claims. If they don't, they could lose their benefits altogether.
Fraud and Overpayments
Unemployment insurance fraud can occur in a few ways. It can happen through identity theft, which occurs when someone illegally files for UI benefits using another person's identity. In this instance, the person and their employer hold no responsibility for the fraudulent act. Another way fraud occurs is when an applicant gives the VEC false information to get benefits or to continue a claim. For example, they have returned to work, but not reported their earnings. Overpayments to the claimant can be a mistake made by the VEC.
Applicants who suspect overpayment, fraud or identity theft should fill out the VEC's Fraud/Theft/Overpayment form or call a VEC agent at 800-782-4001. Those with other issues regarding fraud should contact the state's Customer Contact Center at 866-832-2363 or mail their questions to the Virginia Employment Commission, Attention: Benefit Payment Control, P. O. Box 27887, Richmond, VA 23261. When a person reports a fraudulent claim through identity theft, the VEC's Benefit Payment Control unit takes over the investigation. It will suspend the claim and stop payments.
A fraud investigator and possibly law enforcement will research the case, but the individual does not receive information about the case's outcome as federal regulations prohibit it.
Scammers and Unemployment Insurance Benefits
Fraud also occurs at the hands of scammers who send fake links to users applying for UI in order to "phish" for their personal information. Applicants should use only http://www.vec.virginia.gov or http://www.vawc.virginia.gov to input UI information. Some claimants have also received emails from individuals or services offering them the opportunity to enroll in a direct deposit card program. This communication does not come from the VEC or from the state. Applicants who receive this email should not respond and delete it immediately.
Stopping a UI Claim
Claimants who rejoin the workforce must let the VEC know; it is illegal to do otherwise. If they earn more than their weekly benefit amount, their UI will cease. If they earn less, the state recalculates their UI to a lesser amount. Those who no longer need benefits can simply report their return to work to the VEC office and stop certifying weeks.
Providing false information is a criminal act. Those convicted of it face fines of $20 to $100 and a maximum of 30 days in jail. Each false statement provided to the VEC to receive UI payments is a separate offense. Those convicted of fraud cannot receive benefits for at least one year.
Claimants should keep accurate records of their earnings and benefits, as the VEC compares employee wages to UI benefits and can intercept a claimant's state tax return for repayment.
- VEC: Benefits Eligibility
- VEC: Reporting Unemployment Insurance Fraud
- VEC: Fraud/Theft/Overpayment Form
- VAWC: Virginia Workforce Connection
- VEC: Virginia Employment Commission
- VEC: Our Claims Processes
- VEC: Appeal Rights
- VEC: File an Initial or Weekly / Continued Claim
- VEC: Applying for Benefits
- VEC: FAQ's - General Unemployment Insurance
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.