“These people don’t have that money. They paid for groceries, they used the money,” Sen. Nemes said. “That’s what unemployment is for. When you are unemployed you get your unemployment insurance and you pay your bills so you can get back to work.”
The state is required to collect when a person has been overpaid in unemployment benefits — even if it wasn’t their fault. That means some are learning about their state debt only after they’re in need of unemployment again.
The former executive director of the Kentucky Office of Unemployment Insurance told legislators Thursday the agency’s chaotic rush to deliver benefits in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic led to months-long delays — and may have violated federal unemployment regulations.
Muncie McNamara testified before the Interim Joint Committee on Economic Development and Workforce Investment. The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting first reported the details of McNamara’s time at the Office of Unemployment Insurance earlier this month; he was hired personally by Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman in January and fired in May, amid the chaos of the pandemic.
McNamara spoke for almost half an hour about the issues he saw at the agency. After his testimony, Republican lawmakers questioned him about Gov. Andy Beshear’s response, the months-long delays and data security. Only one Democratic lawmaker was called on to ask questions.
McNamara told legislators that neither he nor Josh Benton, the Deputy Secretary for the Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development, were consulted before Beshear announced a statewide shutdown of in-person business that led to a massive spike in unemployment.
According to McNamara, Beshear and Benton wanted to quickly extend benefits to independent contractors and other workers who previously wouldn’t have qualified.
“[Benton] stated he wanted to do this as soon as possible, and he did not want to wait for the feds, the U.S. Department of Labor, to act,” McNamara testified. “He wanted Kentucky to take the lead in this.”
McNamara said that decision to move quickly at the beginning has contributed to the months-long delays for benefits the state is now trying to untangle.
The head of the Office of Unemployment Insurance was quietly fired on May 5, amid an unprecedented number of jobless claims, a race to overhaul an archaic computer system and a belatedly-reported data breach.
Note: This story has been updated to reflect changes since it was originally published on March 18. The coronavirus pandemic has left many in Kentucky jobless, and many more will lose their jobs in the coming weeks. Researchers at the Federal Reserve’s St. Louis district estimate the unemployment rate could hit 32 percent due to the coronavirus. But access to unemployment insurance has been greatly expanded for those who have lost their jobs to help ease the burden.
Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order on March 25, expanding unemployment eligibility to workers not typically covered by the program, including the self-employed, independent contractors, freelance workers, substitute teachers and childcare workers employed by religious groups and nonprofits.