Most of the time, helping the people of our community navigate state government is one of my favorite parts of being a legislator. While the Kentucky Constitution does not grant legislators any direct authority over an executive branch program, I am often able to help cut the red tape and get a constituent to the right person or program. In my time in the legislature, I’ve been honored to connect folks from this community with administrators in just about all of the cabinets. Not everyone gets what they want, but at least we are able to get an answer.
However, over the past three months, constituent services has weighed heavily on my heart. I have received hundreds of phone calls, emails, messages, and texts from constituents sharing how our state’s unemployment insurance (UI) program has failed them. And, they are not alone as more than 50,000 Kentuckians have been waiting as long as three months for some kind of communication about their claims. To put it into perspective, that’s equal to the population of Franklin County, where our capital city is located. Many tell me that I am the only real person they have talked to, and they are frustrated and feel forgotten. This is a widespread problem affecting people in every corner of the state.
I joined my colleagues in the General Assembly in supporting our Governor in his early handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But I also have an obligation to call into question why our unemployment insurance program is failing the very people it exists to serve. I understand that the system in place when the state shut down in March was designed to help the historically few people who were unemployed. But if you knowingly shut down the state’s economy you must do everything in your power to ensure that your unemployment insurance program is prepared. We know that changes can be made quickly, just look at how successful the testing clinics have been as they have offered drive through testing in regions throughout the state.
Like you, I was raised to not criticize unless it was constructive, so I want to be clear that help has been offered multiple times. Most recently, more than a hundred staffers that work for the legislature volunteered to help with claims. These people are more than capable, some work with constituents every day and all understand how important resolving this problem is.
This week, people gathered at the Capitol to protest the fact that they still had not received unemployment benefits. The day of the protest an unpublicized, quickly planned pop up office was opened onsite to help process UI claims. When word of this got out, people began arriving to get in a line that eventually stretched around the back of the Capitol and into a residential neighborhood. Many were helped in as little as 10 minutes, most after waiting months. Some were turned away when the office closed at the end of the day. The next day, people began arriving at 3 a.m. and the line grew even longer. This continued through the end of the week, with people traveling to Frankfort from across the state, driving as much as three and four hours. Many were forced to bring their children and stood for hours. I am thankful that some of my colleagues were in Frankfort and able to hand out waters, and grateful to the local restaurants and individuals that provided free pizza and drinks, feeding people who would otherwise have waited without food.
By opening this popup office, the administration demonstrated that they could do the right thing. But they can’t stop. They have the power and ability to resolve problems, but for some reason, they don’t until they are forced to. Late last week, the Governor told reporters that he is considering opening additional regional offices similar to the Frankfort pop up, and that more information will be coming out in the next few days. I hope they do, and I also believe they can improve on how those pop ups operate. Until then, we will continue to work on these claims, trying to find a way to help people get the money they deserve to pay for things they need.
If you are waiting for unemployment benefits, please continue reaching out to me, and I will do my best to get you in touch with someone who can help. Even though we are not in session at this time, I still want to hear from you regarding concerns about unemployment or other issues. I can be reached through the toll-free message line at 1-800-372-7181 or here at home. You can also contact me via e-mail at Larry.Elkins@lrc.ky.gov.
Larry Elkins is a Republican state representative representing the 5th District, which includes Calloway County and part of Trigg.
Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of the Murray Ledger & Times.