LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Since the Pandemic started, a record number of Kentuckians found themselves out of a job and soon out of options to pay bills.
“There was times that I thought the best thing I could do was just disappear,” Rex Burton, 39, said.
Over the past two years, hundreds of people struggling to get unemployment have reached out to FOCUS Investigator John Charlton.
Burton’s story was like so many others, with different circumstances.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, he says his company contracted to deliver for Amazon folded.
That May, he did like hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians did. He filed for unemployment.
However, Burton’s claim virtually disappeared in the commonwealth’s overwhelmed Unemployment Insurance (UI) system.
Over the past two years, FOCUS has heard from hundreds of claimants complaining that they couldn’t get anywhere with unemployment.
No one to talk to, no money showing up.
“I ran out of options completely,” Burton said.
Without income, he eventually lost his car and then his home, and finally hope.
Burton admitted he contemplated suicide and just kind of faded away.
“We’ve seen improvement,” State Auditor Mike Harmon (R) pointed out.
However, he said, there was still a lot of work to do as his office’s audits revealed.
Fraud was still a major concern, and those still waiting for help as well.
“At least as of June 30 of 2021, we still identified 120,000 outstanding claims, the backlog of outstanding claims. I would not be surprised if there was still significant backlog.” Harmon said.
As of April 6, it’s clear the backlog is still significant.
According to the Labor Cabinet, as of last week, around 96,000 unemployment claims still need to be processed.
Of those, the vast majority, about 89,000 are in "fact finding" status.
On top of that, 6,920 other cases are being appealed.
The Labor Cabinet also pointed out successes, stating that since the pandemic began, more than 4 million claims for unemployment have been filed and from January 2020 through the end of March 2022, about $6.75 billion dollars been paid out in Kentucky alone.
“For those that still haven't got their unemployment, we need to make sure that there is money available to them when they finally get it resolved,” said Auditor Harmon.
The Labor Cabinet said there will be money left, through a federal extension on traditional and pandemic unemployment programs, although spokesperson Holly Neal couldn’t say how long the extension will last.
After two years, so many questions remain unanswered, and FOCUS had hoped to get answers in a one-on-one interview with either UI Executive Director Buddy Hoskinson and/or Gov. Andy Beshear.
Requests were made dozens of times over several months in emails to the Labor Cabinet and to the Governor’s Office.
Phone call requests also fell on deaf ears.
In the end, the Labor Cabinet would offer a statement on April 1, which was word-for-word the exact same statement it provided weeks earlier on March 11:
“The agency has been focused on helping Kentuckians impacted by the powerful storms and tornadoes that devastated many areas in December. Staff within the agency were reallocated to administer the Disaster Unemployment Assistance Program to ensure the needs of Kentuckians were met at a critical time.
Work also continues to help eligible Kentuckians receive the benefits they are entitled to. In-person or phone appointments are available daily on the scheduling application at the 13 regional Kentucky Career Centers across the state for people that need assistance.
The office is currently focused on the negative impacts HB 4 will have on the UI system, staff, and claimants. As Gov. Beshear explained during a Team Kentucky update on Feb. 10, the Kentucky General Assembly cut UI funding in the years leading up to the pandemic. Those cuts included a reduction of 90 employees and had a profound result on the UI system.
Lawmakers have denied multiple requests from the Governor to increase staffing, restore funding and improve the safety net so claims can be processed more efficiently today, but more importantly to ensure the commonwealth can be better prepared to handle adversity in the future.
Instead, they passed legislation that will double the workload of existing UI employees and make it even more difficult for Kentuckians who need unemployment benefits to navigate the application process and obtain them. The legislation appears to directly impact those most in need like families impacted by recent deadly tornadoes in Western Kentucky.”
The Labor Cabinet continues to advise that the best way to get claims verified and fixed is by reserving in-person and phone appointments with one of the Kentucky Career Centers offices throughout the state.
Rex Burton did just that on March 22.
During the 15-minute conversation, the specialist on the other end in Bowling Green acknowledged a mistake was made on UI’s end and payments could be sent out after Burton re-registered with the system.
Burton, however, needed an official state photo ID to do that.
So, he went to get one at one of Louisville’s license offices but was denied that ID, essentially breaking state statute.
The following day the office issued the ID.
Burton re-registered with UI, but after his emails to the specialist in Bowling Green went unanswered, he scheduled another phone appointment with the Hazard office.
He says the specialists there told him his claim was denied and there was no record or notes of his conversation with the Bowling Green specialist.
Wednesday, Burton made the two-hour drive to the Bowling Green office for an in-person appointment this time.
There, Burton says he was told his claim was back on track after more system mishaps needed fixing, and that he could expect his first payment in the next few days after two years of waiting.