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Governor Northam plans to use more than $862 million in federal COVID relief funding to replenish Virginia’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which took a big hit paying benefits during the pandemic. Northam also proposes another $147 million for upgrades and improvements to help the Virginia Employment Commission better handle unemployment claims. By many measures, Virginia was at or near the bottom of all states in the length of time to process claims requiring adjudication.  And a state agency recently reported the commission is still not responding to the most of the calls coming in.
NEWS RELEASE: RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam today announced that the Commonwealth will commit $935.6 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding to replenish the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and accelerate critical upgrades to the Virginia Employment Commission. The Governor’s plan will put $862 million back into Virginia’s unemployment insurance trust fund, preventing tax increases on businesses and ensuring that employers are not penalized for layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Virginia will also invest $73.6 million to fast-track ongoing modernization efforts at the Virginia Employment Commission, including $37.4 million to boost call center capacity, $29.8 million to upgrade technology, nearly $4.6 million to hire additional adjudication officers, and $1.8 million for personnel support.
“Shoring up the Commonwealth’s unemployment insurance trust fund is a smart investment that will prevent Virginia businesses from paying higher taxes and allow our economy to continue surging,” said Governor Northam. “These actions will also propel our modernization efforts forward so the Virginia Employment Commission can better serve those in need of assistance throughout our pandemic recovery and into the future. Together with the General Assembly, we are taking important steps to ensure Virginia remains a place where businesses, workers, and families can all thrive.”
Virginia, like all other states, pays unemployment benefits from its Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which is financed through payroll taxes paid by employers. When higher numbers of workers are laid off and apply for unemployment insurance, taxes on businesses increase based on a formula to help replenish the trust fund. Because these taxes are based, in part, on a company’s history of laying off or reducing staff, the businesses most impacted by pandemic-related workforce reductions face the most significant increases in future unemployment insurance taxes.
“The Commonwealth’s unemployment insurance system has served as a critical lifeline to thousands of out-of-work Virginians over the last year,” said Secretary of Labor Megan Healy. “This continued investment will ensure the long-term viability of the trust fund and allow Virginia businesses to put their limited resources towards hiring workers rather than paying taxes.”
These investments build on the Northam Administration’s ongoing work to implement long overdue improvements to Virginia’s unemployment insurance system and address rising unemployment tax rates resulting from the pandemic. Governor Northam signed Executive Order Seventy-Four in December of 2020, which held businesses harmless for lay-offs that occurred during the pandemic and protected Virginia businesses from having to pay an additional $200 million to restore the depleted Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.
Governor Northam and the General Assembly have also worked together to support out-of-work Virginians in need of assistance and speed up the processing of unemployment claims. The special session budget included $210 million to backfill the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and the 2021 budget dedicated an additional $15 million to increase call center staffing levels and support long-overdue IT system upgrades at the Virginia Employment Commission.
“In May, we made a commitment to prioritize the use of American Rescue Plan funding to support workers and small businesses alike,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn. “This plan follows through on that promise by keeping relief funds available for Virginians while simultaneously removing added burden on businesses, helping them get back on their feet.”
“While Virginia’s unemployment rate has now fallen to half of what it was last summer, the past year’s claims depleted the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund,” said Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw. “Replenishing the trust will help small business and is a necessary and fiscally responsible step forward as we rebuild and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Despite being underfunded for decades, the Commonwealth’s unemployment insurance system successfully distributed $12.9 billion in benefits to more than 1.3 million eligible Virginians between the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and May 2021. Approximately 85 percent of Virginia applicants receive benefits within 21 days of filing an initial claim, making Virginia sixth in the nation—and first in the Mid-Atlantic region—for delivering unemployment insurance to eligible individuals.
In May 2021, Governor Northam issued Executive Directive Sixteen, which directed the Virginia Employment Commission invest $20 million to add 300 new adjudication staffers, make immediate technology upgrades, and complete a full modernization of the Commonwealth’s unemployment insurance system by October 1, 2021.
“These investments to modernize the Virginia Employment Commission are continued steps towards addressing federal underinvestment in the system,” said Delegate Lamont Bagby, Chair of the Joint Commission on Unemployment Compensation. “We must continue this momentum and work to ensure the Commonwealth has the strongest unemployment insurance system in the nation.”
“I hear every day from Virginians who are struggling to get their benefits,” said Senator Adam Ebbin, Vice Chair of the Joint Commission on Unemployment Compensation. “This funding to support additional adjudication officers, call centers, and IT modernization will help our system more efficiently and effectively provide unemployed Virginians with the support they deserve.”
Governor Northam and General Assembly leaders released a joint statement in May outlining shared priorities for allocating the $4.3 billion in federal funds available to the Commonwealth from the American Rescue Plan (ARP). The Governor and state legislators previously announced plans to invest $353 million to boost recovery among Virginia’s small businesses and $700 million to expedite the deployment of last-mile broadband infrastructure to unserved areas and close the digital divide within by 2024.
On Monday, Governor Northam kicked off “Investment Week” by announcing that the Commonwealth intends to use $250 million in ARP funds to improve ventilation and air filtration in public schools. Earlier today, Governor Northam announced that Virginia will dedicate $411.5 million to make improvements to aging water systems and improve drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure.