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Posted January 14, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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VEC offices forced to do more with less

By James Heffernan -- Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER -- The winter is normally a busy season for the local Virginia Employment Commission office, but this year, with the economy in recession and employers having to shed workers to survive, the agency's workload is especially heavy.

"We're working pretty hard," manager Eugene F. Schultz Jr. said of his staff, which consists of seven people, down from 23 in 2007.

Schultz said the office is fielding a lot of phone calls, mostly from individuals who have already filed jobless claims.

"They're wanting their money," he said.

Some of the inquiries are from residents of Fairfax County, where the VEC closed one of its offices last year due to federal funding cuts.

The decision underscores the ebb and flow of VEC operations. The reduction in federal funding has decreased the number of staff and offices available to assist customers. At the same time, demand for the VEC's services -- namely job placement and emergency unemployment benefits -- has spiked. The commission receives no state funding.

Schultz said it is difficult to quantify the jump in local jobless claims, in part because new claims typically are filed online or go through the commission's toll-free call centers in Grundy and South Boston. But, according to the VEC, $14.2 million in unemployment insurance claims was paid out during the first week of December alone.

The Winchester-area jobless rate climbed to 5.1 percent in November, the region's highest rate in a dozen years. Not all layoffs are included in the rate due to the fact that severance and other pay must be exhausted prior to an individual receiving unemployment benefits.

Recent federal contingency funding will pay for the VEC to hire 30 to 40 temporary workers statewide to meet the increased demand. Schultz said he hasn't had to tap that, in part because the VEC has moved most of its services to the Internet to streamline costs.

The VEC's call centers for jobless claims now have Saturday hours. The number is (866) 832-2363.

To improve the call centers' ability to handle increased customer demand, the VEC is piloting a program to serve customers based on their Social Security number. Customers with a Social Security number ending with an odd number are asked to call on Monday, Wednesday or Friday. Those whose number ends in an even number are asked to call on Tuesday, Thursday or Friday.

The VEC is also encouraging Virginians to file their claims online at www.VaEmploy.com.

All VEC offices will be open for business during regular hours on Friday, even though other state offices will be closed in observance of Lee-Jackson Day.

* Contact James Heffernan at jheffernan@nvdaily.com

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