Since the coronavirus pandemic started taking a toll on businesses and employees in March, Kentucky’s unemployment system has been overwhelmed with claims. Although additional unemployment benefits are continuing, and there’s a possibility of system upgrades, many who have applied for benefits still have questions.  

In fact, some Kentuckians have gone without any assistance even after applying for unemployment months ago. Bruce Sauer, a Paducah resident, lost his job as an energy manager for Kentucky public school districts this summer and applied for unemployment in June.

He still hasn’t received any aid. 


For months, Kentucky officials have responded to concerns from people who owed overpayment debt from unemployment payments by saying they were seeking permission from the federal government to forgive the debts.

The most recent federal coronavirus relief package finally grants states that option, but it will have no effect in Kentucky. That’s because debt forgiveness still isn’t allowed under state law.

Kentucky made thousands of improper payments at the start of the pandemic, including many to people who believed they were eligible for unemployment benefits based on the governor’s directions, if they needed to “self-quarantine.” Some substitute teachers also racked up overpayment debt when they continued to claim while school was out for the summer.

Liam Niemayer

He asked her if she was cold. A wind whips around the park in western Kentucky a couple days before Christmas. He puts his arm around her as they move closer together on the bench.

Blake Livesay, 27, met Laura Brooke, 31, online earlier in 2020, and they’ve been inseparable since. She liked his way with words, “like a walking, talking Hallmark card.” He fell in love with her two kids from a past relationship. 

With the hardships they’ve been through this pandemic, the couple said they at least have each other. But their struggles have been crushing for them.


Courtesy Bytemarks via Creative Commons

A new federal report shows that West Virginia and Kentucky saw the country’s sharpest declines in personal income last quarter as some forms of federal support during the pandemic expired.


The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis says personal income decreased in every state in the third quarter of 2020, which includes the months of July, August, and September. 


The Bureau of Economic Analysis defines personal income as the income received from all sources including labor, owning a home or business, domestic sources, financial assets, and transfers. 


Income in West Virginia declined by nearly 30% in the third quarter. In Kentucky, income decreased by a little over 24% and in Ohio it dropped by 16%. 


Matthew von Kerczek, an economist for the Bureau of Economic Analysis, explained that there were two contributing factors to the decline in personal income for the nation, both tied to the limits of federal coronavirus support. 




After the 2008 recession revealed the weaknesses of the nation’s unemployment insurance systems, most states got to work upgrading their technology.

The need for such an overhaul was obvious, and the reason the federal government set aside $7 billion in 2009 to modernize the nation’s unemployment systems.

Forty states took the free money. But Kentucky left it on the table.

The commonwealth missed out on a cool $90 million back then. But experts say the failure to bring Kentucky’s unemployment insurance system into the 21st century is costing Kentucky to this day.

With hundreds of thousands across the Ohio Valley struggling to make ends meet, a suite of coronavirus aid packages, including rent and utility relief funding, eviction moratoriums, and expanded unemployment benefits, is set to expire at the end of December.

The consequences could be far-reaching. Poverty rates have soared as some federal programs, including the additional $600 in weekly unemployment aid, came to a close. Now, over 75% of Kentucky’s 7,654 independent restaurants are in danger of closing permanently, according to the Independent Restaurant Coalition; one in three West Virginians is at risk of eviction; 16% of Ohioans are behind on their rent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate is 6.9% ⁠— well below the terrifying peaks of late spring, but twice what it was in February.

Even those who do have cash to spend are being more cautious with it.

Devine Carama

This fall, Lexington, Kentucky, activist and artist Devine Carama launched a different kind of road trip across his home state. He visited a dozen cities and towns, from Pikeville, in the state’s Appalachian east, to Paducah, near where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi. He carried a sign that said “I’ll walk 400 miles if you promise to vote.”

He wants to bring attention to what he says is the most important election of our lifetimes and to open up conversations about why people do or don’t vote. 


“That was another kind of, you know, motivational piece to this,” he said. “How can we inspire people to not just register, but actually go out and vote?”



Ryland Barton

A coalition of Kentucky union groups organized a protest caravan on Thursday to call on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to extend the $600 per week supplement to unemployment benefits, which expired last week.

About two dozen cars, a semi truck and a mobile LED billboard circled the federal courthouse in Louisville, where McConnell has an office, honking their horns..

Part of the group organized by the AFL-CIO, Teamsters and other union groups eventually headed to McConnell’s neighborhood in the Highlands to protest, though he was still in Washington negotiating the latest coronavirus relief bill.

Kentucky legislature

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.

Updated at 11:34 a.m. ET

New claims for unemployment benefits rose last week for the first time in four months — since March 28 — as states began reimposing lockdown restrictions in an effort to reverse a surge of coronavirus cases.

More than 1.4 million new claims were filed during the week ending July 18, an increase of more than 100,000 over the week before, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

Kentucky’s official unemployment rate is trending downward since swelling to more than 15 percent at the height of the coronavirus outbreak. 

June’s jobless rate was 4.3 percent, mirroring the rate recorded for the state one year ago.

Kentucky's current unemployment rate is also much lower than the national average of 11.1 percent. The number of Kentuckians employed in June increased by 28,536 while the number of unemployed decreased by 137,600.

Bytemarks via Creative Commons

Kentucky is still processing about 50,000 unemployment claims made during March, April and May, though state officials said on Wednesday that contractors have started working through the backlog this week.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration announced last week that the state will pay professional services firm Ernst & Young $7.4 million to help process the backlog with 300 workers.

During a meeting of the legislature’s Joint Interim Committee on Appropriations and Revenue on Wednesday, Republican Sen. Mike Nemes said he had “quite a few problems” with the contract, arguing that the state could have saved money by hiring more state employees.

Ryland Barton

As Kentucky continues to struggle with a backlog of unemployment claims dating back to March, appointments to get in-person assistance with unfilled claims are now booked through August.

Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration set up an online portal for people to sign up for in-person help with unemployment benefits late last week, but the slots quickly filled up this week.

According to the state’s career center website, in-person appointments at the Kentucky Labor Cabinet building in Frankfort were booked through August 25 (as of Friday afternoon).

Bytemarks via Creative Commons

The state of Kentucky has hired an outside contractor to speed up the processing of unemployment claims. The coronavirus created nearly one million jobless claims in the commonwealth. 

Gov. Andy Beshear's administration has entered into a one-month contract with Ernst and Young to fix the massive backlog of applications. Three hundred of the accounting firm’s employees will begin processing claims on Monday, July 6. During a news conference on Tuesday, Beshear acknowledged the public's frustration with busy phone lines and lack of in-person assistance.

“The reality that we hear is that they can’t get somebody talking to them to fix their claim. We’re quadrupling our workforce," Beshear said. "They’re going to start calling people with the oldest claims first.”


As the Ohio Valley continues its phased-in reopening, unemployment insurance claims are down slightly compared to the week before. The region is still reporting high levels of unemployment assistance applications.

At least 82,011 people in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia joined those seeking help during the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The data released Thursday morning by the U.S. Department of Labor shows about 1.8 million unemployment claims around the country for the week ending May 30, bringing the country’s total jobless applicants to almost 42 million since mid-March.