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Outdated state computers delay jobless benefits

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Some unemployed workers in Virginia are eligible for a seven-week extension of benefits, but the Virginia Employment Commission needs a computer programming update before it can distribute checks.

It’s unclear how many of the more than 100,000 Virginians collecting unemployment checks could be caught in the delay.

The VEC says extension payments should be made by June 26, after needing almost two months to complete new computer programming.

State officials said Thursday there’s nothing they can do to speed up the processing of claims because their computer network has, at its core, a 1970s-era mainframe machine.

“We’re working desperately... to update to pay the benefits out,” said Joyce Fogg, spokeswoman for the Virginia Employment Commission. “We’re projecting those payments will be made by June 26.”

Sam Lupica, the commission’s chief operating officer, said the problem has been building for years because until recently there wasn’t money to replace the system.

The computer issue is particularly acute, he said, because the active network handles high volumes of complex data. That includes compiling updates on the pay of every worker in the state, calculations of unemployment taxes, collections of money from several sources to pay claims, and processing of unemployment claims.

The state recently began a $45 million, federally funded project to replace the network, Lupica said. But that effort won’t be completed for three to four years.

“It’s a monumental process,” he said.

Meanwhile, Fogg said, the Employment Commission is dealing with casualties of an enormous economic recession.

The volume of inquiries about benefits is larger than Fogg has ever seen in her eight years with the agency.

More than 100,000 Virginians are collecting unemployment checks that total about $25 million a week.

Americans who qualify for the benefits are entitled to 39 weeks of pay that is based in part on their income before they lost their jobs.

A federal law approved last year also requires individual states to pay an additional seven weeks if their state unemployment rate is 6 percent or higher for three consecutive months. Virginia met that threshold with the release in late April of March’s 7 percent statewide unemployment rate.

Once the computer programming update is completed in June, Fogg said, future claimants needing the extra seven weeks of benefits will still have a small delay.

People who think they’re eligible for the extension should wait for the Employment Commission to send them a letter with an application for the extra benefit, she said.

The letters are being sent within days of workers exhausting the first 39 weeks of benefits, she said.

• For information about state unemployment benefits, see www.vaemploy.com, or call (866) 832-2363.