LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Appointments for Kentucky unemployment insurance help are snapped up within minutes of being made available each morning, and people still have to wait two weeks before their chance to talk to a specialist at a state office.

But for the members of one of Louisville’s biggest unions, UAW Local 862, the unemployment office is coming to them this week.

A few hundred workers, primarily from Ford’s Louisville plants, are expected to get help from union leaders and a “handful” of state unemployment officials during a private “assistance clinic” the local union organized for its nearly 14,000 members, according to union leaders. The clinic is today through Friday at the Kentucky Truck Plant union hall in eastern Jefferson County.

One union official described it as a “unique opportunity” for Ford plant workers in a memo earlier this month prompting members to sign up for slots.

Unlike a year ago – when the union converted one of its halls into a temporary unemployment office – this week’s clinic is not designed to help the broader public with their jobless claims, union officials told WDRB.

“It’s not the same setup. It’s not the same assistance,” said Todd Dunn, president of UAW Local 862.

In August 2020, when state offices were still mothballed, UAW Local 862 allowed the state to use its Fern Valley Road union hall, and about 4,000 people received one-on-one help with their unemployment claims over the week.

While the state sent 40 employees to the 2020 event, only a “handful” of state employees will attend this week’s clinic, said Marcus Sheckles, vice president of UAW Local 862.

The Kentucky Labor Cabinet, which runs the unemployment system, didn’t respond to inquiries WDRB News sent Friday and Monday for this story.

WDRB asked, for example, how many state employees are being detailed to the UAW hall this week and whether that means less help at offices open to the public.

UPDATE: A day after this story was published, the Labor Cabinet responded by saying that no staff from the state's 13 employment offices were dedicated to the UAW clinic. The cabinet did not say which or how many employees were dedicated to the clinic, nor did it respond to WDRB's other questions. 

Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, received strong support from organized labor in his narrow defeat of incumbent Republican Matt Bevin in 2019. Labor Cabinet Secretary Larry Roberts is a former state director of Kentucky’s council for construction trade unions.

Sheckles said the state agreed to provide officials to the union’s clinic because the UAW did much of the heavy lifting in advance – collecting information about members’ claims and triaging the issues, even fixing many simpler problems without state involvement.

“We’re pretty much doing all the work. But we don’t have access into the system. So the UI (unemployment) person looks it over make sure it’s right or wrong, and puts it in the system,” Sheckles said. “I think that’s why they agreed to come down and help because we’re helping such a large number of people in such a short time.”

The state would have needed detail many more employees to the UAW clinic if it were open to the public and no one was vetting issues with claims in advance, Sheckles and Dunn said.

Dunn said UAW employees will be doing most of the work at the clinic, with state officials "trying to guide us in the right direction."

"If you were going to look at somebody coming in cold, sitting down with a (unemployment) representative, spending time with them, that would be an apple," Dunn said. "And what we got is going to be an orange because our people have already worked all those problems down to a certain point. But they still have an issue."

The UAW members’ issues also relate to mass-claims that big employers like Ford are able to file directly with the state on behalf of their employees. Most unemployed workers file their own claims without involvement from their employers.

Sheckles said the UAW was told the state would have “limited access” to deal with issues at the clinic, and that UAW workers with complex claims may still need to make appointments through the public system.

One way members may get help, for example, is if they need to reset their 8-digit PIN to access their account. Kentucky mailed new PINs to about 300,000 people in April when it shut down the system to stop fraudulent activity.

Many claimants have had difficulty reaching a human on the state’s unemployment phone line to have their PIN reset. But UAW members may be able to get new PINs at the clinic, assuming their account isn’t locked due to fraud, Sheckles said.

“That’s one of the things, the PIN resets … a lot of little stuff can be fixed really easily in the right setting,” Sheckles said.

Louisville’s two Ford plants, Kentucky Truck Plant and Louisville Assembly Plant, have endured a rollercoaster production schedule this year as the automaker struggles with the global shortage of computer chips needed in new vehicles.

The plants employ about 13,000 rank-and-file production employees between them. UAW Local 862 also represents workers at a handful of smaller companies providing services, like cleaning, to the plants.

Louisville Assembly Plant has taken the brunt of shutdowns and has been idle since May 24, with work scheduled to resume July 19 after the plant’s normal two weeks of summer vacation.

Like other thousands of other Kentuckians, Ford workers have had problems getting the unemployment benefits to which they are entitled. More senior Ford workers are entitled to a wage-replacement benefit from the company, but the benefit is pegged to unemployment earnings.

As of June 2, 122,578 initial unemployment claims filed between March 2020 and April 2021 were “pending” with a stop on payments, including 66,141 claims with no suspected fraud or identity issues, according to figures provided by the Labor Cabinet.

Those figures relate only to first-time claims. The state has not been able to quantify the number of problems with ongoing claims.

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