Even though Kentucky’s coronavirus cases have declined, businesses have reopened and restrictions have lifted, thousands of Kentuckians are still waiting on unemployment benefits they applied for during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vicki Lahman filed for unemployment in February 2020 after she was laid off from Louisville department store Shaheen’s shortly before the first case of coronavirus was reported in Kentucky.
Lahman is 75 years old, has COPD and is back to work at Shaheen’s now. But despite months of applications and calls to the state’s unemployment office, she only received one unemployment check in March of last year.
Her daughter, Heather Calamita, helped her throughout the process. She said they reached an unemployment official over the phone in May of last year who told her Lahman’s application had been put in “the wrong pile” and the situation would be quickly fixed.
“And so we thought ‘great’ and nothing ever happened,” Calamita said. “And so my mom started calling again, and she called every day. Probably in October of 2020, or maybe November, somebody finally called her back and they said you need to submit more documentation to verify who you are.”
Calamita said despite sending in more documentation, they didn’t hear back from the state. So she tried to set up an in-person meeting with an unemployment official, finally landing one in Prestonsburg—a three-hour drive from Lahman’s home in Louisville.
The meeting led to more forms, more waiting, until finally, at the end of May, Lahman got a letter saying she owed the state $200 for overpayment of unemployment benefits.
“We started calling again, but we can’t get anyone to return our call. I looked and there’s no availability for an appointment anywhere in the state of Kentucky,” Calamita said.
According to state records, there are still 122,578 pending unemployment claims filed since March 2020.
Among those, 56,437 have been flagged for potential fraud or identity issues.
Like most of the country, Kentucky’s unemployment system wasn’t prepared to handle the massive influx of applications for unemployment insurance benefits after businesses closed and laid off workers at the beginning of the pandemic last year.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear blamed the predicament on antiquated software and unemployment policies that encourage applications to be denied or reviewed.
He also squarely blamed former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, his opponent in the 2019 race for governor, for eliminating dozens of unemployment positions and shifting the state’s in-person unemployment system to call centers.
Republican legislators have criticized Beshear’s handling of the unemployment backlog and GOP State Auditor Mike Harmon released a report saying the administration didn’t know how much it owes in unemployment benefits.
Beshear’s office and leaders of the Kentucky Labor Cabinet did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Labor Cabinet Secretary Larry Roberts announced last week he is resigning at the end of the month “to spend more time with his family,” according to a statement announcing the move.
Calamita says her mother finally got a letter saying she would receive more than $6,000 in unemployment benefits.
Though the money still hasn’t been deposited in Lahman’s bank account, Calamita says she’s “cautiously optimistic.”
“It’s great for my mom, if she gets paid,” Calamita said.
“I‘m sure there are thousands of other people that are still in the same boat.”