Without a doubt, unemployment insurance is the number one issue I hear about from constituents. In the early days of the pandemic, I received several phone calls and emails a day from people waiting for claims to be processed. Those calls are still coming today, more than a year after the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed and the state began shutting down.
We still do not know the full effect of the pandemic and the state’s response to it, but we can all recognize that it has taken a toll on our economy. In February of last year, there were almost 173,000 available jobs waiting to be filled, investments in our state were at historic levels, and we were on track to shatter state revenue records. Within weeks, our state lost an estimated 300,000 jobs as business after business closed. While we gained many of them back, today we have approximately 100,000 fewer jobs than we did when the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed.
It is particularly frustrating because legislators are limited in what they can do to help those with ongoing claims. We reach out to the Labor Cabinet but cannot help speed the claims process up or even identify why a claim has not been fully processed. However, we used the authority we have to allocate funds and pass laws to improve accessibility to the program and provide relief to employers who until now have carried the burden. This includes using the budget (HB 192) to require 90 additional positions in the Office of Unemployment Insurance and provide an additional $10.4 million for technology upgrades. We also allocated $575 million in federal COVID-relief funds to the UI Fund. This money will not only repay a federal loan used to pay unemployment insurance program benefits but also provide money for future claims.
Access to In-Person Communication — SB 146 was amended in the House to require the Labor Cabinet to open in-person, fully operational regional public employment offices when a region’s unemployment rate is above 5% for the preceding six-month period. The measure also grants the Labor Cabinet the ability to open and operate additional satellite offices on a full- or part-time schedule.
State of Emergency Unemployment Benefits Relief — HB 413 requires that unemployment benefits related to a state of emergency or disaster declaration be paid from the pooled account and not the employer’s personal reserve account. HB 413 also suspends any unemployment insurance employer tax increase, state mandated surcharge assessment, and increase in the wage base for 2021. It also creates the Unemployment Insurance Task Force for the 2021 Interim to study potential reforms to the unemployment insurance program.
Unemployment Benefits Forgiveness — SB 7 allows the state to forgive unemployment benefits that have been overpaid through no fault of the recipient and if repayment would be contrary to equity and good conscience. Only payments made between Jan. 27, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2021 are eligible. SB 7 also requires measures intended to prevent fraud to be implemented by July 1, 2023, and requires the unemployment office to provide records to the attorney general for possible fraud prosecution.
As I write this update, this year’s legislative interim is just a month away, and we are working to identify which issues we will focus on to prepare for the 2022 Session. So much of what we accomplished this year was possible because we devoted last summer and fall to laying the groundwork. We will continue our work on unemployment insurance problems over the next few months.
Now that the 2021 legislative session has adjourned, I can still be reached through the toll-free message line in Frankfort at 1-800-372-7181 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like more information about any of these bills or legislative actions, you can also visit the Legislative Research Commission website at legislature.ky.gov.