Kentucky Politics

Gov. Andy Beshear plans to merge the state’s Labor Cabinet and Education and Workforce Development Cabinet in an attempt to streamline the state’s problematic unemployment system.

The move comes after more than a year of leadership shuffles and policy changes at the cabinets, which struggled to keep up with a crush of claims for unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

Beshear said the merger would help the state respond to workforce challenges by consolidating employees and making the unemployment insurance system more efficient.

“This creates the cabinet that has [unemployment insurance] within it being much larger, with the ability moving forward to cross-train employees should the need occur in other areas,” Beshear said.

Like much of the nation, Kentucky’s unemployment insurance system wasn’t built to handle the record number of unemployment claims early on in the pandemic.

The backend of the system dates back to the 1970’s and is so outdated that officials say they have to recruit retired IT professionals to find people who know how to work with its ancient programming language.  

Kentucky still had a backlog of more than 84,000 unemployment claims at the end of last month.

And as the state struggled to respond, Beshear shuffled and re-shuffled the leadership and organization of the unemployment program.

Early on in the deluge of claims, Beshear fired the head of the Office of Unemployment Insurance. He then moved the unemployment system from the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet to the Labor Cabinet. Another face of the unemployment office, Deputy Education and Workforce Cabinet Secretary Josh Benton stepped down in July 2020. Labor Cabinet Secretary Larry Roberts stepped down in June 2021. And Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman stepped down from her dual role as Education and Workforce Cabinet secretary last month.

Current Labor Cabinet Secretary Jamie Link will be the leader of the new cabinet. He said the merger will improve the state’s ability to respond to labor needs.

“It will facilitate more efficient and effective collaboration with local workforce boards, state and local chambers of commerce, state and federal agencies, as well as the Kentucky General Assembly,” Link said.

Beshear said the merger would have to be approved by the legislature, but he is already moving forward with consolidating the cabinets.

Labor Cabinet officials in former Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration had floated the idea of merging the agency with the Public Protection Cabinet in response to revelations that the state wasn’t properly investigating worker safety issues. The legislature never took up the request.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.