Since the coronavirus pandemic started taking a toll on businesses and employees in March, Kentucky’s unemployment system has been overwhelmed with claims. Although additional unemployment benefits are continuing, and there’s a possibility of system upgrades, many who have applied for benefits still have questions.
In fact, some Kentuckians have gone without any assistance even after applying for unemployment months ago. Bruce Sauer, a Paducah resident, lost his job as an energy manager for Kentucky public school districts this summer and applied for unemployment in June.
He still hasn’t received any aid.
“When I should have gotten my first check, nothing came. I looked online and it said my case was under investigation," Sauer said. “My identity is verified, my income was verified, mine is a pretty cut and dry case it seems to me.”
He says he was told being under investigation was common, and that the issue would be resolved.
Fortunately, Sauer’s wife is still working as a schoolteacher and the two had money saved before the pandemic. But with Sauer’s job loss, and not having an employment check, the couple is slowly depleting their savings.
It’s unclear how many people haven’t received their claims, according to the unemployment office, but some Kentucky residents have shared situations similar to what Sauer has endured. People have reported being months behind on rent, and some have even become homeless because of the lack of aid.
There’s another thing they all likely have in common.
Those who haven’t received any benefits in the Commonwealth have heard a 30-second voicemail every four days for months from the unemployment office.
The recording gives them options for remaining in the queue to get a call back or exiting the queue. However, when they call back, they get the same automated message.
Sauer told WKU Public Radio that after getting the recording for weeks, he wrote a letter to the unemployment office and even reached out to Gov. Andy Beshear’s office in hopes of getting in contact with someone.
“I could never reach anybody in person at the unemployment office. I tried my local office. Never could get through to a person,” he said.
Sauer’s main questions: why can’t he talk to anyone, and will he ever receive his benefits?
According to Dustin Pugel with the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, there are many multiple reasons why these problems are occurring.
“That really is a product of several compounding factors, the biggest one being that we have computer system that dates back to the Nixon era,” Pugel explained.
The current system Kentucky’s unemployment office is using was set up in the 1970s and Pugel said it hasn’t been upgraded since then.
“Just picture a black computer screen with green text and that’s the kind of technology that we are talking about,” Pugel said.
In addition to that outdated system, the unemployment office has also lost its ability to get back to applicants quickly. More than 30 of the state’s 51 regional career centers have closed. People with questions, like Sauer, could visit those offices and talk to an employee.
Kentucky also missed out on federal funds. During the first few years of Gov. Steve Beshear's administration in the late 2000’s, Kentucky was offered 90 million dollars by the federal government to make improvements to the unemployment system, but turned down the money.
“So, we missed the boat during the Great Recession, and we are paying for that now,” Pugel said.
Due to the dated computer system, the closure of multiple offices, and the missed opportunity of federal aid during the great recession, Kentucky’s unemployment office didn’t have the proper infrastructure to implement multiple federal programs and couldn’t handle the dramatic increase in applicants during the pandemic.
Gov. Andy Beshear said during his recent State of the Commonwealth address that his proposed budget would put funds back into Kentucky’s unemployment systems, including $47.5 million to upgrade technology.
Kentucky’s unemployment office denied WKU Public Radio a taped interview, but did provide some written responses to questions. Communication advisor, Calli Mills, said in an email that staff were busy ensuring the office was being responsive to during the pandemic.
Mills also said the office is working to upgrade the system, and she added that Kentuckians will eventually receive their benefits.
“Even if claimants have returned to work, they will receive the UI benefits for the time period(s) they have been determined eligible,” Mills said in an email.