FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ/Press Release) – Saying it is past time to improve a critical part of Kentucky’s economic safety net, state Representatives McKenzie Cantrell, Nima Kulkarni and other House Democratic Caucus members announced a legislative plan today designed to significantly modernize Kentucky’s unemployment insurance program.
Jason Bailey, the executive director for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, spoke in favor of the legislation as well.
“These proposals give the General Assembly a blueprint to do its part in tackling long-standing problems that became all too evident when COVID-19 arrived last March,” said Rep. Cantrell of Louisville. “Those issues made it tougher to quickly and accurately handle many changes such as those authorized in the federal CARES Act. Just as importantly, our plan also provides a stronger foundation so that the UI program will be much better prepared for any future economic downturns. Kentuckians deserve to know that unemployment insurance is there for them whenever they may need it.”
The legislative package seeks to accomplish five main goals: 1.) Expand benefits in certain cases; 2.) Strengthen the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund; 3.) Maintain more state unemployment insurance offices across Kentucky; 4.) Make it easier for employers to choose a reduction in staff hours rather than lay-offs; and 5.) Allow several new groups of people to qualify for unemployment insurance.
All five goals are in Rep. Cantrell’s omnibus bill, which is being filed today, and several are stand-alone as well. Those focusing on specific facets of the unemployment insurance program include Rep. Kulkarni’s House Bills 78 and 240.
House Bill 78 would help victims of domestic and dating violence, stalking or sexual abuse qualify for unemployment insurance if they had to leave their job for those reasons. House Bill 240 would waive debts arising from overpayment of unemployment insurance benefits if that excess payment was due to administrative error or other reasons and was not due to fraud.
“Our unemployment insurance system is in a crisis right now, and needs funding to update its archaic technology and to staff and reopen in-person offices,” said Rep. Kulkarni, also of Louisville. “But there are also longstanding oversights in our system that have been made glaringly obvious during the pandemic. I pre-filed House Bill 78 last October in recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, after months of work with Meg Savage from the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Laela Kashan from Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, and other advocates and experts, to address the far-reaching workforce impact of domestic/dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking for those who leave or lose their job due to abuse.
“Similarly,” Rep. Kulkarni added, “Rep. Lisa Willner and I filed House Bill 240 in the first week of this session to address the fact that Kentucky simply had no statutory mechanism to allow for the waiver of overpayment of benefits where the claimant was not at fault. We saw the confusion and chaos that this oversight created for so many Kentuckians when this pandemic began. These two bills alone would help thousands of Kentuckians at a time when help is so desperately needed in our Commonwealth.”
Rep. Cantrell noted, “Governor Beshear’s administration is making many necessary changes in the unemployment insurance program, and his budget requests funding to do even more. Our bills complement that work, because the General Assembly should have a role to play as well. If we can enact this dual approach, we’ll have one of the best unemployment insurance programs in the country.”
Rep. Cantrell added that while COVID-19 vaccines “are giving us hope for better days ahead, the truth remains that we still have a lot of challenges. In December, for example, Kentucky lost jobs for the first time since recovery began last spring. Federal stimulus programs are helping, but we as a state have to provide a stronger lifeline in the meantime for those unable to find work.”
Under the five broad areas, Rep. Cantrell’s bill would include the provisions in Rep. Kulkarni’s legislation and also the following provisions:
1.) Clarify that unemployed part-time workers can seek similar part-time work and still be eligible for benefits.
2.) Allow claimants to receive benefits while training for a new profession.
3.) Raise the floor for the lowest-possible UI payment from $39 to $100. That minimum would automatically increase in future years.
4.) Waive overpayment of benefits if it was administrative error and not due to fraud, as included in Rep. Kulkarni’s House Bill 240.
5.) Increase benefit amount by $25 for each dependent, starting in 2022.
STRENGTHEN UI TRUST FUND STABILITY
1.) Employer contributions would be based on the unemployment insurance trust fund’s solvency and its history of paying out benefits, moving Kentucky closer to recommendations from the U.S. Department of Labor. Rep. Cantrell said this change would boost the trust fund during strong economic times and have it be better prepared for recessions, with less reliance on borrowing from the federal government to pay benefits.
MAINTAIN MORE UI OFFICES
This legislation calls for the state to open Kentucky Career Centers at such density so that no Kentuckian is more than 50 driving miles away from a center.
AUTHORIZING WORK-SHARING OPTION
1.) This encourages employers to consider a reduction in staff hours rather than lay-offs, a process known as work-sharing. Employers taking advantage of this would maintain employer benefits, and the employee would receive UI benefits while still working a reduced schedule.
EXPAND UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE ELIGIBILITY
1.) This legislation would add three new groups who could qualify for unemployment insurance.
a.) Those separated from employment due to domestic violence/abuse, dating violence, sexual assault or stalking, as included in Rep. Kulkarni’s House Bill 78.
b.) Those whose spouse’s employment is moved more than 100 miles away. This provision mirrors one already available for military spouses.
c.) Those who leave work due to a non-work related illness or injury that would keep the worker from doing his or her job, including COVID-19.
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