Kentucky Politics

Kentucky Labor Cabinet officials say a new unemployment system will take two years to complete. Until then, the state is trying to make improvements to the outdated system it currently uses.

Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration is still working through more than 84,000 backlogged unemployment claims, a process that dates back to the beginning of the pandemic when systems in Kentucky and the rest of the nation were overwhelmed with an influx of requests for benefits.

During Thursday’s meeting of the Unemployment Insurance Reform Task Force, Labor Cabinet Secretary Jamie Link said before the state gets a new unemployment system, it’ll have to bolster its current one.

“Obviously we’ve got a year and a half or two years before the new system is implemented and we need to make improvements now,” Link said.

“We can’t predict the future, but should another occurrence like this happen, I don’t think any of us want to go through another situation like we’ve gone through the last 18-plus months.”

The backend for Kentucky’s unemployment system dates back to the 1970’s and was unable to keep up with the wave of people applying for unemployment amid business closures and restrictions, especially early-on in the pandemic.

Republicans have blamed Beshear for the problems, including the backlog of benefits, fraudulent claims and a data breach.

And the state’s overhaul of the system was delayed earlier this year after a finalist selected for the job backed out at the last minute.

Morgan Eaves, the legislative liaison for the cabinet, said the system is so outdated the state has trouble finding IT professionals who are familiar with its ancient coding system.

“When something happens with the system and we need a major rework we have to try to find retired IT staffers because again, it’s just not a coding system that’s taught anymore because it’s so far outdated,” Eaves said.

The state has budgeted $47.5 million for the new system.

Rep. Phillip Pratt, a Republican from Georgetown, said the state could buy a new system more quickly.

“Is there not something we can do besides building it from the ground up? Can we not get something off the shelf like California, like Texas did, get it off the shelf, get it up, get it going? Why are we reinventing the wheel?” Pratt said.

Link, the Labor Cabinet Secretary, said the state wants to build a new system and not rely on developers to maintain it.

“If you buy someone else’s code, they own that code, and every time you have to go do something you have to pay them to manipulate that code,” Link said.

“By us owning the system and the code, we will be responsible and have control over our future when it comes to a system like this.”

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