State officials recently signed a $7 million contract with Ernst & Young to resolve about 56,000 unemployment insurance claims still pending from March, April and May, Gov. Andy Beshear announced Tuesday during his first weekly Team Kentucky update.

Starting Monday, Ernst & Young, one of the largest accounting firms in the world, will bring in ready-to-go experts to process claims. The team will start with 200 members, building up to 300 in a few weeks.

The company recently helped Colorado and Oklahoma with backlogged unemployment claims. Beshear expects Ernst & Young to complete the job by the end of July.

CARES Act funding paid for the one-month contract. By contracting out this work instead of hiring new staff, the state will save more than $15 million in annual costs, the governor said.

Plus, it would take four to six months to train new employees to do the job. That’s too long, Beshear said. Residents need help with claims immediately.

“The purpose of this is to get us caught up and caught up quickly,” Beshear said.

In other news, he announced 135 economic development projects that will bring nearly 4,700 full-time jobs and a total of $1.3 billion in investments to the commonwealth. All these new projects have materialized since the governor took office in December.

Eight of the projects — representing a total investment of more than $62 million and 165 jobs — are slated for this region, according to information the governor released.

Beshear opened his weekly update with the economic development news before touching on COVID-19 and related subjects. The governor recently announced his former daily coronavirus briefings would give way to Tuesday afternoon briefings that will include a variety of subjects, including the virus.

“We’re not going to be battling this virus forever,” he said. “We have a tomorrow.”

Also, state officials announced extended food and health-care benefits Tuesday. For example, Kentucky has expanded the application period through August for the pandemic electronic benefit transfer program, which provides free meals to children who qualify for free-and-reduced lunches at public schools. And the state extended Medicaid benefits three months.

In addition, Beshear discussed Kentucky’s $1.1 billion budget shortfall for fiscal year 2020-2021. If Congress does not provide more CARES Act funding to deal with the cost of the worldwide pandemic, the state will face 16% to 29% budget cuts, which would potentially be the largest ever. In the past, the biggest cut was 12%, Beshear said.

“This would be like letting Kentucky go bankrupt, which we cannot allow to happen,” he said.

Beshear said Congress should act sooner rather than later because the new fiscal year begins Wednesday, July 1.

“We need certainty about where Congress is going,” he said.”

When it came to coronavirus news, the governor reported 282 new cases, bringing the state’s total to 15,624.

Beshear announced five more deaths. To date, 565 Kentuckians have died from the virus.

While several states are seeing spikes in new cases, Kentucky remains in a plateau.

“We have stayed relatively flat,” said Dr. Steven Stack, the state’s public health commissioner. “That is not an accident.”

Stack credited the state’s gradual reopening strategy, which mirrors the Trump administration’s reopening guidelines.

On Wednesday, Green River District Health Department officials reported four new confirmed COVID-19 cases — two in Daviess County and two in Henderson County.

The total number of reported COVID-19 cases in the seven-county district is 898.

Muhlenberg County Health Department reported three new cases, bringing that county’s total to 523.

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com

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