Recent editorials from Kentucky newspapers:
The News-Enterprise on a state audit revealing issues with the unemployment insurance system:
State Auditor Mike Harmon’s office made headlines last week with the release of a massive document labeled as volume one of the Statewide Single Audit of Kentucky for Fiscal Year 2020.
The bulk of the 25 findings documented massive problems associated with a 1,300% increase in unemployment insurance claims resulting from extensive layoffs associated with businesses forced to close or curtail operations after Gov. Andy Beshear’s executive orders designed to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The Office of Unemployment Insurance faced monumental issues as 49,023 new unemployment claims were filed during the week ending March 21 and an additional 113,149 new claims the next week. Also, three significant new unemployment insurance programs were created via the federal CARES Act designed to respond to economic hardships resulting from the pandemic.
Here are a few of the issues identified:
- Leadership made decisions that violated federal law and sacrificed program integrity in an attempt to more quickly get payments to unemployed individuals. One of these changes, referred to as “Auto-Pay,” allowed benefits to be automatically paid without requiring claimants to report the weekly wage information needed to determine whether they were actually eligible for benefits.
- Despite high-risk decisions made in an attempt to pay benefits more quickly, many claims still were not timely processed. As of Oct. 29, the backlog of unprocessed, initial jobless claims totaled approximately 80,000.
- The office had archived more than 400,000 emails received through its UI assistance email account that remained unread as of Nov. 9.
- The external pressure of the pandemic incentivized office management to override system controls. Because of the lack of controls over payments during the Auto-Pay period, auditors could not precisely estimate total overpayments or underpayments. The auditor’s office said while not all of these payments were improper, “they were paid in a control environment highly conducive to improper or even fraudulent payments.”
- Auditors selected a sample of 37 state employees who filed for and received unemployment insurance benefits and discovered 16 state employees were paid unemployment benefits for the loss of part-time jobs despite still being employed by the state. The net overpayment in this sample was more than $116,000.
- Auditors found multiple issues related to information security and data processing. The UI system contains the private, personal taxpayer information for every employed Kentuckian and the audit revealed that federally mandated and state-required monthly system security checks were not performed.
- The office also failed to inform the Auditor of Public Accounts, along with other state agencies, of three data breaches that occurred in April and May 2020. State law requires agencies to notify the auditor and others within 72 hours of the occurrence. The office did not report the first breach as required until after the media learned of it, at least a month after it occurred.
“The systemic failure of leadership on all levels not only violated federal law, but also let down many who needed relief,” Harmon said. “It also leaves others facing the prospect of repaying the government for miscalculated payments they received in good faith.”
Beshear’s public response points to some corrective measures taken last spring and it aims an accusing finger at past measures to economize in state government.
“Unfortunately, in the years leading up to the pandemic, the previous administration, and previous legislatures, closed in-person offices, sliced the UI budget by $16 million, and cut 95 skilled employees from UI that were desperately needed,” Beshear said.
His budget address in January also asked legislators to allocate $47.5 million to correct chronic underfunding of the unemployment insurance system plus General Fund spending of $1.1 million in fiscal year 2021 and $8.4 million in fiscal year 2022 to restore jobs to help with unemployment claims at the 12 career centers including the Lincoln Trail office in Elizabethtown.
It’s also important to note that, by nature, audit reports are picky. Auditors test standards and look for shortcomings. And in this circumstance, like all seemingly coming out of Frankfort, politics could be at play with a Republican state auditor’s staff looking at administrative operations of a Democratic governor.
With all that being said, this report is exceptionally damning – particularly for Gov. Beshear who has demonstrated care and concern throughout his leadership through this COVID pandemic.
But compassion goes beyond kind words at a news conference. True caring compels one to action. And despite his statements of support, the Beshear Administration has not repaired or even effectively patched up an unemployment insurance system incapable of meeting the economic downturn his COVID response created.
The full 138-page report is available on the state auditor’s website and includes very state agency’s responses. If you have time to read it, judge for yourself how many sound like excuses versus reasons.
State government never has been accused at being good at customer service. But this is an exceptionally convincing example of neglect.
The Bowling Green Daily News on giving back to the community:
It would be easy for Ben McCormack to accept his success story and call it a happy ending. Instead, the Bowling Green man is helping others turn their lives around in profound ways.
The 35-year-old McCormack is owner of the BM Projects construction company, where he renovates and rehabilitates local homes.
He’s also rehabilitating lives.
Based in a Nutwood Street residence, McCormack has created a program he calls GRACE (for Gentlemen Recovering Around Christ’s Edification).
McCormack has experience in traveling down the road toward a new life.
As a young man he developed an addiction to pain medications that wound up earning him a stay in the Warren County Regional Jail.
“I got strung out on painkillers and it went from bad to worse,” he told the Daily News. “I got arrested for robbery one night and went to prison for four years.”
The arrest and incarceration were a wake-up call.
“The whole time I was locked up, I kept seeing guys go in and out (of jail) and in and out,” he said. “I decided I wasn’t going to continue down that path, and I thought I could help others not go down that path.”
McCormack worked various jobs after his 2015 release from jail, but after his father died from cancer, he relapsed and wound up in rehab for six months.
That experience spurred McCormack to create GRACE.
“At the rehab place, I just told God I needed help,” he said. “It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.”
As he began working in the construction trade, McCormack took on others who were down on their luck and gave them not only a job, but lodging at the Nutwood home if needed.
McCormack’s wife, Amanda, now prepares meals on Thursday evenings for the three men now living in the home. Along with sharing his food and his house, Ben McCormack shares his Christian faith with the men in the program.
One of the men is Darren Adams, a reformed methamphetamine addict who has lived at the Nutwood Street house for more than a year.
“He has definitely changed my life,” said Adams, who now works as a forklift operator at the American Howa Kentucky plant. “When I came here I couldn’t be around my family. Now I’ve straightened up. I’ve been clean since the day I walked in. Ben helped my family find a house. Now I should be able to leave here in a month or so and be with my family.”
Ben McCormack serves as a shining example of someone who has not only rehabilitated himself, but is making our community a better place through his generous efforts.
Ben McCormack said he hopes to continue reaching out to those in need with a simple message: “If you get knocked down,” he said, “you can get back up.”
The News-Enterprise on human trafficking:
When you live in a safe neighborhood in a safe community in a relatively safe state, you don’t always recognize some of the dangers around us.
Take, for example, human trafficking.
This grave violation of human rights occurs around us. Whether sexual exploitation or forced labor akin to slavery, it relies on coercion, fraud, deception and abuse of power. It employs criminal acts ranging from abduction to physical abuse and starvation.
Silverleaf Sexual Trauma Recovery Services describes it as a “modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain and it can take many forms, including sex trafficking.”
The local agency recently focused a spotlight on the issue because awareness is a critical element of protecting your loved ones and yourself.
“Many people believe human trafficking is something that is happening in other countries and that victims are international,” said Jillian Carden, Silverleaf’s executive director. “This perpetuates the myth that it doesn’t happen here.”
The average age of children that fall into human trafficking is between 15 and 17 and less than 1 percent of victims make it out, she said.
For three years, Carden said Silverleaf has tried to educate communities about human trafficking. In the eight counties Silverleaf serves, the staff has presented information and resources to every physician and pediatrician. Carden said information packets and training also were offered to all hotels and motels and free training is available to the public.
Like any crime, the main reason it occurs is money.
Some people are coerced or compelled into this traumatic reality as a means to escape poverty. But the primary issue in America is the market for these criminals. The United States is the No. 1 consumer of human trafficking, both in the illegal sex trade and as undocumented household servants or other low-cost labor.
Carden encourages parents to be mindful of their children’s internet activities because predators lurking online include human traffickers. And with the COVID pandemic, remote schooling has placed children in front of the screens for hours on end.
Silverleaf offers resources locally including training. For information or to schedule training, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carden also recommends “Childhood 2.0: The Living Experiment,” which can be found online at childhood2movie.com. S
“One of the biggest messages we try to send — if you suspect something, report it,” Carden said.
And to report human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
Most importantly, please recognize this is a real threat and be mindful. Don’t say it can’t happen here. Denial is just a form of lying to yourself.