Jim Waters

Did you hear the one about Tracey Hayes, who simply followed what Gov. Andy Beshear urged Kentuckians to do by issuing a COVID-19 executive order expanding unemployment insurance to cover additional groups of workers?

While Beshear was announcing the signing of the order during his daily press briefing on March 25, a slide appeared on the screen claiming those who left work due to a “reasonable risk of exposure (self-quarantine)” would now be eligible for jobless benefits.

Hayes, who works as a retail merchandiser around Glasgow, told the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) that she took Beshear’s “healthy at home” message to heart by filing an unemployment claim two days after the governor’s announcement.

She stopped working to stay home and care for her mother and children and reduce the risk of exposing them to COVID-19.

For eight weeks, she got a weekly unemployment check along with some jobless benefits contained in the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law by President Trump the same day Hayes filed her claim.

Then, unemployment bureaucrats replaced Hayes’ checks with demands she repay the state the entire amount of aid she received — $896 to Frankfort and nearly $4,200 to Washington — or face the consequences.

These ultimatums came during an economically crippling pandemic to a mother who had no way of repaying those funds.

She could have her tax refunds garnished as the result of an incompetent bureaucracy which now admits that Hayes wasn’t eligible for benefits — no matter what Beshear or his executive orders claim.

“Unfortunately, fear of getting COVID is not enough to qualify” for unemployment benefits, Labor Cabinet attorney Amy Cubbage announced on Oct. 6.

Beshear punted, blaming changes the federal government made on April 27.

Yet the governor during his daily press briefings that day and the following days said nothing about Kentuckians who, like Hayes, leave jobs to self-quarantine no longer being eligible for unemployment benefits.

The confusion also impacts businesses, who must answer questions truthfully when the bureaucracy comes “investigating” — as they did in Hayes’ case — or face punitive actions themselves.

KyCIR reports Hayes’ employer said she took a voluntary leave of absence and then hung up during an online hearing of her appeal, presumably out of frustration over the constantly moving goalposts defining unemployment eligibility for Kentuckians.

The referee ruled in favor of the company because Beshear’s promise, it turns out, was meaningless.

Such developments were devastating to Kentuckians like Hayes, who, while she finally received a few funds on Oct. 6 from a different federal benefit to retroactively cover four weeks of unemployment from this past summer, lost faith in what she hears from Frankfort, telling KyCIR she no longer watches the governor’s briefings.

This whole fiasco is a microcosm of the commonwealth’s failed efforts to serve Kentuckians hit hardest by Frankfort’s response to this pandemic.

Part of that failure is a $17 million no-bid contract with a Louisville accounting firm hired on June 30 to deal with the backlog of unresolved claims.

WCPO-TV’s investigative team reported on Oct. 7 that since that contract was signed, Kentucky’s list of unresolved jobless claims has grown by more than 90,000, tens of thousands of which were filed by hurting Kentuckians more than seven months ago.

Shouldn’t the bureaucracy invest its time and resources into servicing those claims rather than “investigating” Kentuckians who were employed but pushed to the edge of losing everything through no fault of their own?

Aren’t there better ways to spend 17 million taxpayer dollars than on no-bid, no-accountability contracts?

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.