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This graphic was posted on the Kentucky Career Center's Twitter page on March 30. (Image provided)

Roberta Shepherd feels like she’s been “left out here with nothing.”

The 40-year-old single mother of four was working more than 40 hours a week as a cook at Kentucky State University. Then coronavirus hit. Shepherd was laid off on March 15.

Her story isn’t unique.

According to state unemployment data, 6,301 people, or 24.6% of Franklin County's civilian workforce, filed for unemployment benefits from March 15 to the week beginning April 26. 

Shelby County is in a similar situation as Franklin County; 5,975, or 23.4% of the county's civilian workforce, filed for unemployment benefits during the same period. 

In Woodford County, 3,475 workers, or 23.9% of the county's civilian workforce, filed for unemployment benefits. 

Scott County has been hit the hardest among contiguous counties, with 10,752 people, or 37.2%, of its civilian workforce, filing for unemployment. 

Shepherd, a Frankfort resident, said she immediately applied for unemployment, SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) and health insurance for her children when she lost her job.

She was quickly approved for SNAP benefits, but Shepherd did not receive confirmation she was approved for unemployment benefits until May 7.

“After having to fill out my application for days in a row, because the computer kept kicking me out of the system, I had to spend eight hours a day just trying to file the same paper over and over from March 16 to May 7. That’s what I had to do. I finally got through and it said I should receive my first payment May 21.”

Since late March, Gov. Andy Beshear has repeatedly said the state is seeing an unprecedented amount of claims within a short period of time.

On May 14, The Associated Press reported that more than 750,000 Kentuckians, or roughly a third of the state's workforce, had filed for unemployment in the past seven weeks.

Nationwide, more than 33.5 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the week ending on March 21. Kentuckians make up 2.2% of the nation's workforce filing for unemployment. 

Backlog

While some Kentuckians have not had an issue with filing for unemployment, news headlines from the last two months have shown the process has not been smooth sailing for everyone.

Three weeks ago a Louisville Courier Journal headline read: “Patience is wearing thin for Kentuckians still awaiting unemployment checks.”

A WDRB headline from last week reads: “14,000 March unemployment claims still unresolved in Kentucky.”

Janet’s story

Frankfort resident Jane Osborne applied for unemployment benefits in late March. She has yet to receive a definitive answer on whether she will receive them.

Osborne, 61, told The State Journal this week that none of her other colleagues at The Light Clinic have had an issue with filing for unemployment.

The Light Clinic, a Frankfort holistic medical clinic that offers meditation courses, acupuncture and herbal medicine, was forced to close on March 20. Osborne signed up for unemployment benefits a week later.

Osborne said as far as she knows, she’s filled everything out correctly. She's contacted the Kentucky Department of Education and Workforce Development Cabinet daily for the last two weeks.

“I call many times a day and get the same recorded message,” Obsorne said. “They just say, ‘Do you want us to see if there’s room in the online queue?’ And I say yes. And they say, ‘That’s all full. We’ll call you. You can hang up now.’ They say, ‘Your position in line is held; an agent will call you.’”

Osborne said that early on she received a letter, but it did not indicate whether she’d been approved or when to expect to receive benefits. She said her colleagues who received a similar letter started receiving benefits shortly after.

“It looks to me I’ve been approved, but I haven’t gotten anything paid,” Osborne said.

On Wednesday, Osborne spoke to a human for the first time, but the conversation lasted for maybe 10 seconds.

“She told me to ‘hold on’ and then proceeded to connect me right back to the original robot who told me I was already in the queue and an agent would call me,” Osborne said. “Then they hung up on me.”

With each day that passes, Osborne is afraid those who applied for unemployment benefits in March will forever be left behind.

“It sort of just feels like some of us have just fallen through the cracks,” Osborne said. “I’m in total support of the governor and what he's doing. I’m not saying anything negative about that. I know they’re swamped. I know they’re overloaded. I just feel like they should get the March claims straightened out before they take on all the April ones.”

Unemployment’s impact

Both Osborne and Shepherd say this experience has impacted their ability to pay their bills.

“I went from taking care of my kids to standing in line at the Salvation Army begging for toilet paper,” Shepherd said. “Nobody should be forced to live like this, especially someone who has been working.”

Osborne said she’s struggled to pay her mortgage, utilities and medical bills.

With the promise of her job waiting for her, Osborne has not sought other employment. She hopes The Light Clinic will be able to reopen soon.

As for Shepherd, she would love to be able to work again, but her health and lack of child care options is holding her back.

Shepherd has asthma and diabetes, so she’s working on applying for Social Security disability benefits. It’s something she doesn’t want to do, but she doesn’t have many choices.

However, the option she prefers is employment.

“I don’t want to raise my kids on handouts,” she said. “That’s not what I’m trying to do.”

Shepherd said she’s hoping more food service industry jobs become available in the next few weeks, but she’s worried about getting sick with COVID-19.

“I believe in working,” Shepherd said. “It’s scary having to go out there being a single mother and you think every day, if something happens to me, what happens to my kids? I was a foster child. I would hate to think of my kids being in foster care after everything I went through.”

To top it all off, neither Shepherd nor Osborne has received their stimulus checks from the federal government.

Hopeful statistics

Last month, The State Journal reported that Franklin County’s "job loss vulnerability index" is comparatively low.

Using data from Chmura, a labor data analysis company, Franklin County’s job loss vulnerability index score was 77.85 in April — lower than all contiguous counties.

As of May 13, Franklin County’s index score grew 1.89 points to 79.74, which is still below the average index score.

According to recent nationwide data from Chmura, an average index score is 100.

Kentucky Capital Development Corp. CEO and President Terri Bradshaw credits the low score to Franklin County’s "diverse group of employers and the large number of public administration, utilities, health care and manufacturing jobs."

Bordering counties Scott, Woodford, Owen, Henry, Shelby and Anderson all have higher job loss vulnerability index scores than Franklin County.

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