- Associated Press - Sunday, March 21, 2021

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Applying for unemployment benefits felt like a full-time job for Jessica Seguin.

In May, Seguin left her job at Dollar General in Bardstown over concerns about her 10-year-old son, who has respiratory issues, contracting COVID-19.

Seguin struggled to navigate the system, initially applying for unemployment insurance instead of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a program created to qualify more people for unemployment money who lost their job or had their hours decreased because of the coronavirus pandemic.

She received benefits in late summer and then on Dec. 27 the benefits stopped.

That day, the Continuing Assistance Act was signed by then-President Donald Trump, extending unemployment insurance benefits from the CARES Act and changing some parts of how the benefits work. There was a gap between the two stimulus packages and benefits were delayed as states waited for guidance from the Department of Labor.

“That’s led to a huge interruption of benefits for people and you had a lot of people whose benefits were going OK and then they fell into this pit and we are having to pull people out one by one,” said Evan Smith, an AppalReD attorney who specializes in unemployment benefits.

Every morning at 7:59 a.m., Seguin calls the unemployment office with hopes of talking to a representative. If she gets into the phone system, which is about three times a week, she is on hold hoping to speak to someone by 4 p.m., the time the call automatically ends. The other option is to request an appointment, which must be done when they become available at midnight. The slots fill within a minute.

“It has consumed my life,” Seguin said. “This is a full-time job to contact unemployment.”

On March 8, Seguin reached out for support and help through the Unemployment Kentucky Facebook page. She posted a screenshot of the page she sees every time she requests a claim.

Week No. 1: 12/27/2020 (Sunday) to 01/02/2021 (Saturday)

Week No. 2: 01/03/2021 (Sunday) to 01/09/2021 (Saturday)

The system was stuck in January and wouldn’t advance.

“I’m in an endless nightmare loophole,” she said.

Last week, after waiting seven hours and 22 minutes, Seguin was able to talk to a representative who fixed her claim within 10 minutes. She has received her benefits and back pay.

One of the people who commented on Seguin’s Facebook post was Melissa Weeks, a Paris resident who is working part-time b ecause her grandchild’s daycare closed.

Weeks began claiming unemployment in September. It disappeared after Dec. 27.

“I have been stuck in the loop,” Weeks said. “I’ve gotten nothing since Jan. 7.”

Weeks emails the state unemployment office every day and calls once a week. She estimates she spends 20 hours a week trying to get her benefits.

She calls the process time-consuming, deflating and frustrating,

Crissie Jones owns a decal business that was hit hard with the shutdown. Her husband Greg was a diesel tech. Now he works odd jobs. Their weekly income went from $2,200 a week to $200 a week. She applied for a small business loan but wasn’t approved. She applied for unemployment benefits and received them starting April without any issues. In December, it stopped.

Like Seguin and Weeks, her claim is stuck in January.

Jones calls the office daily and can get through about three times a week. She also has sent about 300 emails.

“Nobody cares,” Jones said. “It does something to your soul.”

Jones was able to talk to a representative with the Office of Unemployment Insurance Wednesday morning. The representative said the claim was fixed and that she would see the funds within the next day. She had still not received the money by Thursday afternoon. She said she has no hope.

As the state began shutting down due to COVID-19 last year, AppalReD assumed it would need to represent a lot more people in unemployment hearings who had been wrongfully denied, Smith said. Instead, people were not getting denied or approved, they just sat there.

He and others in state legal aid offices were at a loss of how to solve the problems, saying there needed to be a “bureaucratic plunger” to push things through. Last year, the legal aids threatened action against the state after people were getting charged for over-payments while never receiving a decision on their unemployment benefits.

They have been meeting with the governor’s and unemployment offices biweekly since November.

“The fundamental problem is you got a software system and, in some sense, a staffing system that requires individual attention for a lot of these cases,” Smith said.

He said finding a solution to these cases takes persistence and an unending supply of patience.

“I don’t expect people to have that,” Smith said. “What people are going through dealing with this on top of all of the other stresses in life. It’s asking the impossible. It’s harder than having a job.”

The Kentucky Labor Cabinet recognizes the problem.

“As a result of an unprecedented number of claims, a limited number of experienced UI staff, and the antiquated computer system, it is taking longer than anyone would like to process unemployment benefits,” Kevin Kinnaird, a spokesperson for the cabinet, said in an email.

Things are slowly improving. Lines aren’t outside the Capitol Annex in Frankfort, like in June. The state set up 125 phone appointment times per day as a partial solution.

The Kentucky Career Center will open 11 regional offices around the state on April 15. The Office of Unemployment Insurance will also open a new call center next month, hiring 20 daytime employees and adding 40 more employees to work the afternoons, nights and weekends. There are plans to add a second call center.

Still, data shows that it’s harder to get unemployment benefits now than it was a year ago.

On March 31 last year, 96% of unemployment insurance applicants in Kentucky would get their first payment within three weeks, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. By Oct. 31, only 27% of applicants received their first payment within three weeks and that number rose to just 36% within three months.

Those timelines had improved again by Jan. 31, when 63% of claimants would receive their first payment within three weeks. Still, more than 30% of applicants who were still waiting for their first payment at 10 weeks.

The federal expectation is that first payments are made on 87% of claims within three weeks.

Nationwide, 78% of claimants received their first payment within three weeks on Jan. 31. In October, the rate was 57%, and in March, it was 97%.

More than 1.8 million unemployment insurance claims have been filed in Kentucky during the pandemic, with 745,000 being unique claimants, according to the Kentucky Labor Cabinet. More than 634,000 claimants, or 85%, have been paid as of March 11.

Kentucky has paid out more than $5.9 billion in benefits since last March.

Last week, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to continue unemployment benefits until Labor Day. Amy Cubbage, general counsel for Gov. Andy Beshear, said unlike in December when there was a disruption for claimants, there should be no gap in benefits.

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