WKYT Investigates | Many Ky. UI claimants face uncertain financial futures as state readies for return to ‘normal’

BEREA, Ky. (WKYT) – Inside the Madison County home where Beverly Miller lives with her mother, sister and nephew are several signs – mounted above a doorway, hanging from a handle, sitting on a shelf – decorations that have also served as important reminders over the past few pandemic-fueled months.

“Blessed,” says one. “Simplify,” suggests another. “Pray more, worry less,” admonishes still another.

“We’ve prayed more, but I don’t know about worrying less,” Miller says with a laugh. “It’s a hard thing to do.”

Miller, like many across the commonwealth, lost her job in coronavirus shutdowns and, thanks in part to an overwhelming number of claims filed and major problems with the state’s antiquated and inadequate unemployment system, still has not received any of the unemployment insurance benefits she is owed.

[MORE: WKYT Investigates | Was Kentucky’s UI meltdown avoidable?]

Even as the state prepares for a return on Friday to pre-pandemic capacity levels, Miller is one of thousands of Kentuckians – short on cash and short on patience – who still have a long way to go toward putting their pandemic troubles behind them.

“I can’t go to the grocery store and tell them, ‘When unemployment gets to me, I’ll come back and pay you,’” Miller told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “I can’t tell the electric company, ‘When they get to me, I’ll pay the electric bill.’ There’s things I have to do, even though right now we’re surviving.”

Miller is thankful to have a roof over her head, but she knows her mother’s fixed income will not stretch forever. Miller says she is owed months of backpay going back to July 2020, and at this point she is not sure when she will ever get it.

She says she has repeatedly gone through the cycle of seeing her claim listed as under investigation and in fact finding, then disappearing altogether and requiring her to refile. Even after a recent appeals hearing determined that she is, in fact, eligible for backpay, she still has not seen a dime, she says.

[MORE: WKYT Investigates | Rampant UI fraud delays payout of valid claims]

More than 2.3 million total unemployment claims (including duplicates) were filed from March 2020 through April 2021, according to the latest Kentucky Labor Cabinet data released June 2. From that same time period:

  • 127,219 total claims denied
  • 701,533 total claims paid/payable
  • 122,578 total pending claims with stops
  • 66,141 total pending claims with no fraud/identity issues

Thousands of those still unresolved claims (not flagged with issues) were filed last spring or summer, that Labor Cabinet dataset shows. By month in which they were filed:

  • March 2020: 40 pending claims
  • April 2020: 2,487 pending claims
  • May 2020: 5,760 pending claims
  • June 2020: 3,373 pending claims
  • July 202: 2,660 pending claims
  • August 2020: 3,318 pending claims
  • September 2020: 4,460 pending claims
  • October 2020: 4,783 pending claims
  • November 2020: 4,783 pending claims
  • December 2020: 6,312 pending claims
  • January 2021: 10,300 pending claims
  • February 2021: 5,252 pending claims
  • March 2021: 4,647 pending claims
  • April 2021: 7,966 pending claims

To make matters worse, Miller and many others say they have not been able to get through to the unemployment office to get help with resolving whatever issue might be holding up their own claims.

WKYT Investigates has heard from numerous Kentuckians frustrated by their inability to get a hold of workers on the UI helpline or even to schedule an in-person appointment for assistance.

[MORE: WKYT’s continuing coverage of the unemployment crisis]

“The system is clearly broken,” said Brittany Belbeck.

Belbeck is back to work now but is also missing five months of backpay going back to December.

She, like Miller, said she has been unable to get an in-person appointment and has been “in the queue” waiting for a callback from the unemployment office, but has not gotten her questions answered or her benefits delivered.

Belbeck said she is thankful that her husband has an income and that the couple were able to use their savings to make up for her lost income before she found another job in early May. But even having a paycheck now does not make up for the months of lost wages. Still, she knows others are much worse off.

“I’m a small person that didn’t get paid for five months. There are people that haven’t been paid for over a year,” she said. “And that’s why I just want to be a voice to say, ‘You’re not alone. We’re going to keep fighting for this.’”

Benefit timeliness reports from the U.S. Department of Labor show that Kentucky’s first payment promptness – within 21 days – dropped from 96 percent at the end of March 2020 to 27.1 percent at the end of October 2020. It plunged in the months in between, but has climbed since:

  • March 31, 2020: 96.0%
  • April 30, 2020: 92.5%
  • May 31, 2020: 72.2%
  • June 30, 2020: 52.0%
  • July 31, 2020: 48.3%
  • August 31, 2020: 31.1%
  • September 30, 2020: 29.1%
  • October 31, 2020: 27.1%
  • November 30, 2020: 40.7%
  • December 31, 2020: 49.6%
  • January 31, 2021: 62.8%
  • February 28, 2021: 61.2%
  • March 31, 2021: 81.5%
  • April 30, 2021: 78.6%

“The agency continues to work each and every day to ensure eligible claimants receive the benefits to which they are entitled, and we will not stop until that goal is accomplished,” Kevin Kinnaird, public information officer for the Kentucky Labor Cabinet, said in a statement.

Despite complaints about reaching UI representatives, the Labor Cabinet still recommends that claimants call (502) 564-2900 for assistance or schedule an in-person appointment at a regional Kentucky Career Center location.

“New appointments become available for scheduling on the Kentucky Career Center website at 9 a.m. EST Monday through Friday,” Kinnaird said in an email. “Claimants can also keep checking the kcc.ky.gov website throughout the day for any appointment cancellations.”

[MORE: Kentucky’s unemployment insurance Help page]

Checking each morning for appointments and refreshing the website throughout the day is part of Miller’s daily routine, she said, as she alternates from calling and emailing the unemployment office to applying for new work online.

Miller said she is grateful that jobs are opening up, but she says she has had a hard time having much luck in her search.

“Even though they say they don’t age or sex discriminate, and they probably don’t, but are you going to hire the 18-year-old who can pick up 80 pounds or the 45-year-old woman?” she asked.

Either way, something has to give soon.

“I have bill collectors saying, ‘Hey, you owe me,’ ‘Hey, you owe me,’ ‘Hey, you owe me,’” Miller said. “Yes, I know I owe you. But I don’t have the money to pay you. When I get it, I will pay you. But that doesn’t ease their mind. It doesn’t ease my mind.”

So for now she will keep up her daily routine – meanwhile watching the world get back to normal and wondering when her life will.

“I go to bed every night knowing, ‘What am I going to do?” she said. “What am I going to do?”

Copyright 2021 WKYT. All rights reserved.

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Wednesday November 2, 2022