Republican lawmakers clashed with officials from Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration during the first meeting of the legislature’s Unemployment Insurance Reform Task Force Tuesday.
Like much of the nation, Kentucky struggled to keep up with a massive influx of applications for unemployment benefits during the pandemic, leading to a backlog of benefits, fraudulent claims and a data breach.
Republicans have blamed Beshear for the problems and this year the GOP-led legislature created the task force to look for solutions to the state’s unemployment system.
Sen. Mike Nemes, a Republican from Louisville and co-chair of the panel, said the issue is important, but lawmakers aren’t trying to blame anyone.
“We’re here to find out what’s going on and what we can do in the future for the benefit of the people of Kentucky,” Nemes said. “This is a very personal and emotional issue so we want to try to keep it as professional as we can.”
For much of the meeting, lawmakers recounted horror stories of constituents and businesses who had trouble with the unemployment system.
Kentucky continues to have a backlog of unemployment claims. As of last week, the state was still sifting through more than 122,000 applications dating back to March 2020.
Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a Republican from Winchester, criticized the Beshear administration for not accepting the legislature’s offer to have staffers help review unemployment claims.
“Why was that help not taken from the legislature, willing to put everything aside, we want to help people out, get these payments, help adjudicate these things quicker?” Alvarado said.
Morgan Eaves, legislative director for the Labor Cabinet, said legal and privacy constraints prevented legislative employees from working for the unemployment system.
Labor Cabinet Secretary Larry Roberts said the administration is finalizing a contract to modernize the state’s outdated unemployment system.
“That’s going to make a big difference. And we’re continuing every day to look to see if there’s things we can do even before this is awarded, because it might take two to three years to make that an outcome,” Roberts said.
Rep. Phillip Pratt, a Republican from Georgetown, asked why the administration continues to provide unemployment workers at Kentucky Career Centers despite the state’s relatively low unemployment rate.
Roberts said centers help the state get in contact with people who need help.
“There’s still a backlog that needs to be worked. And until we get all of those cases worked, there’s going to still be that need to provide that particular service,” Roberts said.
Roberts has announced he will retire at the end of June. He will be replaced by Jamie Link, who has been overseeing the KentuckyWired broadband project.