Kentucky Politics

Frustrated with the slow-moving bureaucracy of the state’s unemployment system, Titus McClung was one of thousands of protesters who went to the state capitol to try and get his unemployment check.

He drove in from Lexington.

“I’m behind on my electric bill. Hopefully I can get some money so I can catch up on my car payment,” said McClung, who goes on dialysis three times a week and has been living off of his disability check and with the help of his daughter.

McClung works part time at the Red Cross’ Wheels program but was temporarily laid off on March 14, along with several coworkers, who he said had all gotten their unemployment benefits.

But three months later, McClung was still waiting for a check.

“It’s been hard,” McClung said on June 18. “I’m sure there are other people worse off than I am. I’m not in the best of shape, but there’s always someone that’s worse off.”

McClung’s is one of more than 6,700 unemployment benefit claims from March that still haven’t been resolved. There are also more than 25,000 unresolved claims from April and 17,000 from May, according to state officials last week.

In all, there have been more than 900,000 requests for unemployment benefits filed by Kentuckians since early March amid the coronavirus pandemic, overwhelming the state’s unemployment system.

The spectacle of thousands of people descending on Frankfort to try and get their unemployment claims resolved two weeks ago prompted Gov. Andy Beshear to provide more in-person assistance to those seeking benefits — the state opened up regional offices in Owensboro and Grayson to review claims this week.

And on Tuesday, Beshear announced a $7.4 million contract to partner with a private firm to process unemployment claims, with the hopes of clearing the more than 50,000-claim backlog from March, April and May by the end of the month.

But the backlog continues to draw outrage from both those who haven’t received their checks yet and Republican politicians.

During a legislative committee meeting about the issue on Friday, Paducah Republican state Sen. Danny Carroll said the Beshear administration should have thought more about the unemployment system before ordering businesses to close during the pandemic.

“We have people now that are greater risk of not being able to feed their kids and losing everything they have than they are of the COVID and we did not even bother to consider that when all of these decisions were made,” Carroll said.

Beshear has blamed the backlog on antiquated software and policies that encourage the system to deny or delay applications.

He’s also blamed his predecessor, Gov. Matt Bevin. In 2017, Bevin eliminated 95 positions that handled unemployment claims and removed workers that dealt with the claims from 31 of the state’s 51 employment centers.

“I believe at that time, face-to-face interactions were removed. And what they had as of 2017 was twelve people who would answer a phone in a call center,” Beshear said.

But Kentucky’s problem is not unique. State governments across the country have struggled to deal with a record number of unemployment applications filed in those initial months of the pandemic.

Across the country, more than 43 million applications for benefits were submitted over the course of a 12-week period during the pandemic, over four times the previous record for claims filed nationwide.

Gary Burtless is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“That’s a lot to put on state unemployment insurance agencies, which remember, at the very same time, were themselves facing the same health risks as all the other employer the country,” Burtless said.

Michele Evermore with the National Employment Law Project says states simply didn’t have a global pandemic and recession on their radar.

“The idea of basically 20% of the workforce applying for initial claims in a matter of months is nothing we’ve ever seen before,” Evermore said.

Evermore says that states need to pay more attention to their unemployment systems, especially when they aren’t going through a crisis.

“The time to fix this problem was two years ago. Nobody was paying attention then,” Evermore said.

Back in Frankfort, Titus McClung got his meeting with state officials. They said they could straighten out his application, but needed more information from him.

“Oh Lord, oh my God you have no idea, it’s been so hard,” McClung said. “Boy it’s been a long road.”

But the road wasn’t quite over yet.

This week, McClung said he still hasn’t received his benefits. Though, he did say he got some more paperwork in the mail for it.

“They told me I was supposed to go on the computer, I went in there and did what I was supposed to did, then they send me another paper to upload some off the wall stuff. And I’m still waiting,” McClung said.

And so are a few thousand other Kentuckians. McClung says he got his part-time job back with the Red Cross last week, but he still missing lost wages dating back to March.

State officials say they are prioritizing claims that were made in March.

WFPL reporter Jess Clark contributed to this story.

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