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Hundreds of out-of-work Americans converge at Kentucky capital seeking unemployment benefits

Megan Henney

Hundreds of people who lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic lined up outside a temporary unemployment insurance office in the Kentucky Capitol to seek in-person help in claiming their jobless benefits.

A video posted on Twitter by Daniel Desrochers, a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, depicts hundreds of people waiting outside of the Kentucky Capitol in Frankfort on Wednesday to speak with someone about their stalled claims for unemployment benefits. The line stretched through the parking lot and around the block.

States, which administer the benefits, have been overwhelmed by the tens of millions of jobless applications filed during the coronavirus pandemic. The deluge of claims crashed websites and clogged phone lines as laid-off Americans desperately tried to access unemployment insurance.

Close to 46 million Americans have lost their jobs since the nation's economy came to a grinding halt in mid-March, a rate unseen since the Great Depression. In the span of three months, the U.S. unemployment rate surged from a 50-year low to an 80-year high. More than 37,000 Kentuckians sought assistance last week.

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Kentucky was one of 22 states with an insolvent unemployment fund before the crisis began, according to Labor Department data.

But because of the virus, it's been difficult for states to help Americans filing for jobless benefits in person.

As Kentucky begins to gradually ease restrictions implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19, the state has started to offer in-person services for individuals who are struggling to get their benefits. So far, the state has helped "at least" 1,100 individuals directly, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said during a Wednesday press conference.

State police estimated that people would have to wait in the line for eight hours before receiving assistance, according to Desrochers. Those who arrived after 9 a.m. were sent away. They were told to provide their information and expect a call back.

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To address the line issue, Beshear, a Democrat, said the state is creating a separate, priority line on Thursday for individuals who filed for benefits in March but have not received the aid. On Friday, that priority line will also include Kentuckians who filed for benefits in April.

One of the goals, he said, is that by the early next week, the state can help out "everybody over the phone that showed up and we weren't able to help because of capacity." Eventually, the state plans to set-up temporary unemployment insurance offices across the state.

"While more unemployment benefits have been provided during this period than ever before, people are hurting, and I know it," he said. "Our inability to help everybody as quickly as we need to is unacceptable, but we're going to continue to work."

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Going forward, the state may explore hiring outside vendors to come in and help process claims on a short-term basis, he said. The state will also implement a new electronic system. Currently, many state unemployment offices use COBOL, an Eisenhower-era computer system.

"The electronic system is so old, that it was incredibly difficult, especially at the beginning when the laws changed," Beshear said.

"When we look back, not consistently updating that system ... teaches us a lesson. If your technology is not where it should be, if you've shorted it in dollars and budgets -- and we've shorted it, UI office in budgets -- we know we've got to do better going into the future. Shame on us if we don't learn from what we've experienced," he added.

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