FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) - The backlog of approving unemployment benefits in Kentucky due to the coronavirus pandemic and the failure to resolve the situation has become a source of frustration, and state officials understand why.
“We acknowledge the frustration that has been involved with unemployment insurance,” Josh Benton, Deputy Secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, told the Interim Joint Committee on Economic Development and Workforce Development on Friday. “There’s been nothing more frustrating over the past three or four months than not being able to get these claims through as quickly as we would like. We are sympathetic to those frustrations and we recognize them as well.”
Benton said in 2017, staffs were cut and unemployment offices were closed, moving the system to a call center model. When the Beshear administration came in, they began to restaff operations and had begun the process of upgrading the computer system, which was still using 1970s technology when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
He told the panel 931,807 claims were filed, but many were duplicates, so the actual number of unique individuals is closer to 560,000.
Initial claims went from 2,463 the first week of March to 113,149 the last week of March, and the federal government increased the types of unemployment available, the combination of which overwhelmed the system.
From the first week of March to the first week of June, “There were over 8.4 million calls into the call center,” Benton testified. “It’s trending downward as the claims go down but, at the peak, we were close to 300,000 calls per day.”
The number of unresolved cases since the pandemic began now stands at 6,700 from March, 25,000 from April and 17,000 outstanding claims from May.
Labor Cabinet Secretary Larry Roberts told the committee, “Gov. Andy Beshear hopes to shortly finalize an agreement with an outside vendor with unemployment insurance experience to address the backlog. It would take months for in-house staff to deal with all the unresolved claims. We will also be in several locations across the state for in-person claims assistance over the next six weeks.”
He says that should also help to alleviate the shortage of what are called Tier 3 personnel, who are qualified to adjudicate disputed or errors in claims. Otherwise, it takes 4-6 months to train them.
Committee Co-Chair, Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah, took the Beshear administration to task for a lack of communication with lawmakers.
“We have not had the information to pass along to anybody, because we haven’t been given information and that’s absolutely been a struggle,” Carroll stated. “That’s a criticism of the administration for not including the people who represent the people of this state and not giving us the information we need that could have avoided some of these issues. It’s all about communications, and I feel we’ve failed miserably in that area.”
Carroll said the issue will likely be revisited at the committee’s meeting in July.