The coronavirus pandemic has put 1 in 3 Kentuckians out of work — the worst in the nation

8 May 2020 - Ben Tobin (Louisville Courier-Journal)

The coronavirus pandemic has put a bigger share of Kentucky's workforce out of a job than any other state in America, new unemployment figures show.

More than 670,000 Kentuckians — roughly one-third of the commonwealth's workforce — filed for unemployment insurance for the first time from the week ending March 14 through the week ending May 2.

More people are out of work in Kentucky than live in all of Louisville.

That puts Kentucky No. 1 in the nation for the percentage of its workforce that has submitted new jobless claims during the pandemic, credit rating agency Fitch Ratings found in a report published Thursday.

The unhappy news comes with Friday's announcement that more than 20.5 million Americans lost their jobs in April, resulting in a 14.7% unemployment rate that is the worst since nearly 90 years ago, during the Great Depression, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Trying to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear issued several executive orders in March that closed or altered businesses across the commonwealth, from restaurants to retail shops.

Beshear knew that would leave many Kentuckians without a job — and he has repeatedly encouraged people to apply for unemployment benefits.

"There is no stigma to public assistance. As we move through this, everybody is going to need help," Beshear said during a March 23 press briefing. "This is the challenge of our lifetimes — none of us have ever lived through something like this. Make sure that you get the help that you need."

So far during the pandemic, the commonwealth has paid 690,000 unemployment claims totaling more than $1.2 billion, Beshear said Friday.

But thousands of other Kentuckians are still having trouble getting their jobless claims processed and receiving their checks.

Kentuckians contact The Courier Journal every day with horror stories about being on hold for hours trying to process claims or waiting for weeks for their unemployment payments as they struggle to provide for their families.

Among them is Megan White of Bowling Green, who said she has tried for two months to reach someone on the phone to help resolve her unemployment claim.

"I start calling at 6 a.m. … And I do this continuously," she said in an email. "How am I going to pay for my mortgage, my electric bill, my gas bill, my phone and internet service?"

The state has been making some progress, Beshear said. Of the roughly 23,000 remaining claims from March, 11,191 were resolved Friday.

"Everyone out there that we haven't helped yet — our fault. It's not acceptable," Beshear said. "I know you're in a tough position. We're going to work just as hard as we can to make sure you are helped."

Kentucky's official unemployment rate will not be released for a few weeks. But that data likely won't vary significantly from the national trend, said Mike Clark, interim director of the University of Kentucky's Center for Business and Economic Research.

"I think the state's experience is going to mirror somewhat what we're seeing nationally, both in terms of magnitude and in terms of sectors that are likely going to be hit," Clark said.

For example, employment nationally in the leisure and hospitality sectors dipped 47%, he said.

Clark said he believes "most of these jobs are likely going to come back," although he isn't sure how quickly.

"Some of them might take awhile," Clark said. "But if we're fortunate to start seeing businesses reopen without allowing the virus to gain a second wave, then we can start to see employment gradually improve."

Others are more pessimistic about workforce prospects.

Michael Hicks, director of Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research in Muncie, Indiana, said industries that have experienced major job losses, such as restaurants, will continue to suffer from low demand even after coronavirus-related restrictions are lifted.

"This strongly suggests that the disease, not government action, is the cause of economic distress," Hicks said. "Thus, regardless of state action to relax shelter-in-place rules, the economy will continue to experience Great Depression levels of stress until COVID-19 vaccinations or treatments are available."

There is a silver lining for Hicks: Of the more than 20 million Americans unemployed in April, close to 18 million reported they were experiencing temporary layoffs — indicating there is hope these workers can regain their jobs as conditions improve.

Meanwhile, Beshear is rolling out plans for Kentucky businesses to reopen, as long as they follow public health guidelines set forth by his administration's "Healthy at Work" initiative.

The rules include enforcing social distancing, closing common areas and making masks universal for employees.

Phase 1 of the plan begins Monday, with manufacturing companies and dog grooming businesses receiving the green light to reopen. In the coming weeks, houses of worship, retail shops and barber shops will be able to reopen, too, under restrictions.

As Beshear announced Thursday, Phase 2 of Kentucky's plan will include restaurants, allowing them to welcome patrons at a 33% seating capacity indoors and unlimited outdoors, so long as they follow social distancing rules.

Movie theaters, fitness centers, campgrounds, child care centers and certain youth sports will also be able to reopen under public health guidelines in June.