unemployment officials 6-22-21

Beshear administration officials, from left, Labor Secretary Larry Roberts, Office of Unemployment Insurance executive director Buddy Hoskinson and Labor Cabinet Director of Legislative Affairs Morgan Eaves, testified in Frankfort on June 22, 2021. 

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration is in the “latter stages” of selecting a technology vendor to rebuild the state’s antiquated unemployment insurance system from scratch, according to a top official.

But the overhaul won’t come in time to help the thousands of individuals and businesses struggling with unpaid or fraudulent jobless claims.

“Obviously, if we can modernize our system that will make a big difference,” Labor Cabinet Secretary Larry Roberts said Tuesday, adding that it will take “two to three” years for the new system to be implemented.

Roberts’ testimony came during the first meeting of the Unemployment Insurance Reform Task Force, a group of Kentucky legislators studying long-term fixes for the system.

The hearing testimony highlighted the administrative burden businesses face in responding a deluge of fraudulent claims and well-worn issues like the Beshear administration’s refusal more than a year ago to accept lawmakers’ offer of 80 to 100 legislative staffers to help process unemployment claims at the start of the pandemic.

There were only passing mentions of Kentucky’s continued “backlog” of unprocessed initial jobless claims, efforts to serve claimants following a shutdown of the system in April and the staffing level of an office that many people still struggle to reach by phone, having to wait weeks for in-person appointments that are hard to snag online.

Roberts and Office of Unemployment Insurance executive director Buddy Hoskinson declined to speak with a crowd of reporters who followed them out of the meeting. “Rather not,” Roberts said.

As of June 2, the Labor Cabinet reported 122,578 initial jobless claims that were “pending” with a stop on payments, 66,141 of which are deemed to not have any fraud or identity-verification issues. Those figures don’t capture an untold number of claimants whose jobless benefits ran into problems after an initial claim, information the state has never been able to convey since the start of the pandemic.

Beshear, a Democrat, during the spring proposed restoring 90 employees in the Office of Unemployment Insurance who were cut in 2017 during the administration of former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

The legislature granted the request in the state budget, but funded the positions with federal dollars instead of making them state positions with permanent career-employee status.

Hoskinson implied the office could use more people than it currently has, but there was no discussion of the office’s staffing level or hiring efforts.

“Just for what we have in adjudication (staff) we could probably use a good 100 people in that alone,” Hoskinson said.

Roberts added that some unemployment office employees are reluctant to take promotions into higher-paying, federally funded positions because it would mean giving up their job protections as merit employees in the state system, which detracts from the office’s institutional knowledge.

Rep. Phillip Pratt, a Republican from Georgetown, questioned the need for the 12 state employment offices that Beshear reopened to in-person service for unemployment benefits in April. He said the jobless rate is falling, so benefits aren’t as needed.

“If it’s down to 4.7%, why are we expanding (unemployment) and the people in there?” Pratt asked.

Roberts responded, “Even though the unemployment rate is down, and it’s improving, there’s still a backlog that needs to be worked. And until we get all those cases worked, there’s going to still be that need to provide that service.”

Reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822, cotts@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2021 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.