Tracey Hayes was working as a retail merchandiser in March, arranging products on store shelves around Glasgow to promote sales, when she decided she couldn’t risk exposing her mother to the coronavirus or handle child care for her two children by herself.
Hayes had been watching Gov. Andy Beshear’s daily coronavirus briefings, and she was sure Team Kentucky would have her back.
“I watched him everyday. He said, ‘Healthy at home,’” Hayes said. “So I was healthy at home.”
Hayes stopped working, cared for her children and mother and avoided adding to Kentucky’s mounting number of coronavirus cases. She filed an unemployment insurance claim on March 27. For eight weeks, she received $112 weekly in unemployment, plus the extra $600 payment established in the CARES Act.
But in May, the unemployment office called to say they were investigating her claim.
“I remember pulling over into the parking lot of a church. At that point I was shaking. I couldn’t drive,” Hayes said.
Soon after, she got a bill ordering her to pay back every cent she’d received.
Hayes told the state she was just doing what Beshear had instructed. Their response was, essentially, that Beshear never told anyone what to do. Despite what she heard the governor say during his daily briefings and what she read in his executive orders, Hayes simply wasn’t eligible.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment. (After publication of this story, the governor’s office sent a statement. Read it here.)
Hayes is one of many people who received unemployment benefits in Kentucky during the coronavirus pandemic and are now learning they were retroactively deemed ineligible. Not only does this cut people off from unemployment for crucial months during the pandemic, many of those found ineligible now owe a debt to the state or federal government that could mean their tax refunds or other money get garnished.
The number of people affected is unclear because the unemployment office didn’t respond to KyCIR’s questions, including how many recipients were later deemed ineligible.
Kentucky’s unemployment system is under immense pressure during the pandemic: By May, Kentucky had the largest share of its workforce on unemployment benefits in the country, and the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund required an $865 million loan from the federal government to stay afloat over the summer.
Several unemployment insurance lawyers told KyCIR they are hearing from more people who were denied eligibility than ever before, and many of them self-quarantined. The unemployment office approved their claim and started issuing payments, only to reassess after the fact and find those workers ineligible.
Hayes has challenged the practice in a lawsuit filed in the Monroe County Circuit Court. The eventual ruling on that case could extend to others who self-quarantined based on what she heard the governor say at his briefings.
The unemployment office has not yet responded to a request for comment submitted on October 6. That same day, Labor Cabinet attorney Amy Cubbage stepped to the podium during Beshear’s briefing to talk about the new, $400-weekly federal unemployment program. This time, Kentuckians watching heard a different message about who was eligible: “Unfortunately, fear of getting COVID is not enough to qualify.”