‘A very, very failed system.’ Enough apologies. Fix Kentucky’s unemployment mess.

Until March 22, Harold Childs of Erlanger installed bathrooms for a Northern Kentucky construction company. His last day of work was March 22, the same day he applied to the state for unemployment insurance. By March 30, he’d received a letter informing that he wouldn’t get the insurance because he was an independent contractor, then another letter saying the previous one was a mistake.

Then silence.

“They made a mistake but they never sent us another letter,” Childs said. “We check online every day. I carry my pay stubs around hoping for a call.”

Without income, Childs, his wife and two children have drained their savings and are now depending on a loan from his dad. The stress keeps him up many nights. “If I could just talk to someone and find out what’s happening, it would help,” he said.

You’ve heard this story numerous times since COVID-19 flattened Kentucky’s economy. Since mid-March more than 675,000 people have filed for unemployment, crashing the system. Gov. Andy Beshear has apologized in nearly every daily briefing. The state Education and Workforce Cabinet went from 12 people at the switchboard to more than 1,000. They were getting up to 200,000 calls a day.

They’ve only got a backlog of 9,000 cases from March. Then there’s 60,000 claims from April to be processed, Henderson said. Kentucky ranks number one in the country for unemployment claims filed as a percentage of the state’s labor force.

I’m sure Cabinet employees are doing their best, but there is still something deeply wrong, a system full of unforced errors that is leaving people teetering on the economic edge. Here at the newspaper, we get emails and calls every day from frustrated people, and the comments on Beshear’s daily briefing FB page are full of complaints from those who can’t get through to a real person or even a recording.

Take Casey Chadwell of Carroll County. He was a regional carpenter for Macy’s, usually working in Louisville. He applied to Kentucky for unemployment benefits, but was denied because he used the Louisville store address rather than Macy’s corporate headquarters in Ohio. Eight weeks of constant calls with no answers. Then, finally, someone at the Cabinet informed him that he would have to apply for benefits from Ohio, as that’s where his insurance had been paid.

On Monday, he called the Ohio (population 11.9 million) unemployment office. A real live person answered the phone, set up his account and said Macy’s had paid in correctly, and his benefits should be forthcoming.

“If Ohio has enough people to take time and help, I don’t understand how Kentucky doesn’t,” Chadwell said. “The people who filed in March are victims of a very, very failed system.”

Both Childs and Chadwell have a little cushion, savings they can fall back on, relatives who can help. But there are tens of thousands of Kentuckians who could lose their houses, young people whose credit reports will be damaged, educations deferred, and eventually people going hungry.

The bigger picture shows an extremely vicious cycle. Kentucky’s economy relies on manufacturing and service industry jobs, which made it particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus shutdown, said James Ziliak, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky, who directs the Gatton College’s Center for Poverty Research.

“We have an over-reliance on economic activity that doesn’t involve as much advanced education,” with fewer jobs that can be moved to people’s homes, Ziliak said. “Until Kentucky has a greater economic base associated with that higher skill level, we’re more susceptible to booms and busts, this is hitting us much more aggressively this time around.”

College attainment levels will be further deferred by this catastrophe; economic prosperity further away. The coronovirus has picked the scabs off decades of bad policy decisions by both political parties, from an antiquated tax system that starved K-12 and higher education of revenue, while also underfunding the state pension system.

This unemployment debacle belongs solely to Gov. Andy Beshear and his cabinet officials, and it will be up to them to fix it. But the larger economic picture is the responsibility of all elected officials and policymakers in the state. The first step is to get someone at the unemployment office to pick up the phone; the harder work will come later in making Kentucky less vulnerable to these economic catastrophes.

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