FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - The number of Kentucky residents filing for unemployment benefits stayed on a record-breaking pace last week, lifting the three-week statewide total to more than 275,000 as the coronavirus pandemic causes widespread economic damage.
A total of 117,135 Kentuckians filed unemployment claims last week, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday. It was up by nearly 4,000 people from the prior week.
Nationwide, 16.8 million Americans filed for unemployment aid in the past three weeks.
Meanwhile, Gov. Andy Beshear on Thursday reported 134 new coronavirus cases statewide, bringing the total to at least 1,452 since the outbreak began. He also reported six more virus-related deaths. That raised Kentucky’s death toll to at least 79, according to the state.
Beshear also issued a new order expanding the number of workers eligible for temporary total disability payments if they go into quarantine due to risk of exposure to the virus.
Benefits will be extended to people working in child care, grocery stores, the postal service, domestic violence shelters, child advocacy centers, rape crisis centers, the National Guard, the military, the corrections system and in social work, said La Tasha Buckner, the governor’s chief of staff. Already covered are first responders, health care workers, EMS and firefighters.
In efforts to slow the spread of the virus, businesses have closed or scaled back since the outbreak began. Not even hospitals were immune from layoffs. In western Kentucky, Jennie Stuart Health laid off 248 employees as it deals with “unprecedented challenges and volume declines” as a result of the pandemic, its president and CEO, Eric Lee, said in a release.
Elsewhere, two of Kentucky’s largest health care providers announced plans to temporarily furlough employees as a result of the coronavirus.
Like elsewhere around the country, Kentucky’s unemployment benefit enrollment system has been overwhelmed by skyrocketing numbers of applicants. Kentucky dramatically increased the number of employees handling unemployment insurance claims.
Three weeks ago, about a dozen people were handling calls from Kentuckians seeking assistance. The goal is to ramp up staffing to about 1,000 workers or more by week’s end, Josh Benton, deputy secretary of the state Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, said recently.
Beshear this week acknowledged the frustrations for suddenly out-of-work Kentuckians as huge volumes of calls overload the system.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get your approval and to get your payments going as fast as we can,” he said. “And keep letting us know when there are issues. It’s our job to fix them.”
Kentucky has received federal funding to allow the state to begin distributing an additional $600 per week for people receiving unemployment aid, Beshear said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the virus is causing some health care providers to scale back on staffing.
UK HealthCare will redeploy some employees to ensure that patient care is being met during the public health crisis, the University of Kentucky announced. It will result in temporary furloughs for an undetermined number of employees, the school said.
The decision comes as UK HealthCare’s hospitals and clinics are well below capacity as a result of the governor’s directive to suspend elective surgeries and procedures, the school said. UK also is setting up a field hospital on its Lexington campus to be prepared for a possible surge of patients.
Baptist Health, another large health care provider in Kentucky, said it will temporarily reassign some staff, furlough others and reduce pay for its top leaders as a result of “unprecedented medical and operational challenges” caused by the pandemic.
At Jennie Stuart, the CEO said the Hopkinsville hospital has been hit by declines in patient care volumes and surgical revenues since Beshear asked Kentucky hospitals to cease elective procedures in mid-March because of the pandemic.
“This is an incredibly difficult time for our health system, and this is not a decision we made lightly. I regret the immediate personal impact on these employees and their families,” Lee said of the layoffs. “However, we must reflect in our staffing how the current reality has changed the resources needed to care for the dramatic shift in our volumes of non-COVID-19 patients.”
The layoffs will not impede the hospital’s ability to care for people in the region, he said.
The hospital hopes to recall the laid off workers, though the timing will be based on its long-term recovery from the public health crisis.
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