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State delays appeals on jobless benefits

FRANKFORT — Out-of-work Kentuckians who want to contest their unemployment benefits before Christmas are out of luck: They may have to wait up to two months to get their appeals heard.

"We're not scheduling appeals cases now until mid-to-late January. It's a problem," said Kim Saylor Brannock, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Education and Training.

The normal wait time is about two weeks.

State Unemployment Insurance Director Tony DeName said the delay is the result of a sharp increase in appeals, a spate of retirements and holiday scheduling difficulties.

There are about 4,400 appeals cases pending and the number keeps growing, DeName said.

The state received 2,651 appeals in October, up 807 cases (44 percent) from September and 996 cases (60 percent) from October 2007.

Kentucky's unemployment rate was 6.8 percent in October, down from 7.1 percent in September but up from 5.4 percent of October 2007.

The decline in the unemployment rate in October "reflects individuals who have faced long-term unemployment becoming discouraged and dropping out of the labor force," said Justine Detzel, chief labor market analyst for the Office of Education and Training in the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet.

Unemployment insurance provides short-term benefits for those who are unemployed through no fault of their own.

As of Monday, the state had $133.6 million in its unemployment insurance fund, down from $186 million on Oct. 9. DeName said the fund is solvent and healthier than that in some other states, but a non-profit watchdog group has previously warned that unemployment funds in Kentucky and 13 other states could run dry in as little as six months if unemployment claims reach the same level they did in three previous recessions.

Unemployment insurance trusts are funded through unemployment insurance taxes paid by employers. Kentucky sets the unemployment insurance tax rate on Dec. 31 based on the financial health of the fund.

When an unemployed worker files a claim, the state by federal law has 21 days to respond.

The state is completing that task on an average of 15 to 17 days. Weekly benefits range from $39 to $415.

If unemployed workers dispute the benefit, they first appeal to a claims investigator. Such cases usually are handled within 14 days. "We are current on those," DeName said.

But if either side disagrees with the claims investigator's decision, an appeal is filed to a referee. The state is already about 15 days behind in scheduling these hearings, and the delay is expected to worsen in coming weeks, DeName said.

The state does not like to schedule appeals hearings during the holidays, when it's more difficult to get employers and witnesses to the hearings, he said.

Another reason for the tardiness is the retirement of several appeals referees.

The state currently has 24 referees and three vacancies. It lost four earlier this year to retirement and is expected to lose another one or two by year's end.

Spokeswoman Brannock said the state is trying to get some of the retired referees to return to work to reduce the delay. She did not know how the current state budget shortfall might affect the problem.

Gov. Steve Beshear is trying to address a projected $456.1 million shortfall this current fiscal year, which ends next June 30. He has asked state agencies to plan for a possible 4 percent cut in their budgets.

More information about unemployment insurance and how to file claims and appeals can be found at www.oet.ky.gov.

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