Politics & Government

State pulling workers out of 31 unemployment offices amid major cuts

The Education and Workforce Development Cabinet is pulling its employees out of 31 unemployment centers across Kentucky in an effort to save millions of dollars.

Workers with the Office of Employment and Training throughout the state received a notice Tuesday that the cabinet was making drastic changes, shifting its focus to 12 “hubs” in Bowling Green, Covington, Elizabethtown, Hazard, Hopkinsville, Lexington, Louisville, Morehead, Owensboro, Paducah, Prestonsburg and Somerset.

The change means 95 employees will be transferred to other positions within the cabinet or elsewhere in state government. There are now 51 Kentucky Career Centers in the state. That number is being reduced to the 12 hubs and eight existing satellite offices.

The 31 affected unemployment offices — including locations in Richmond, Danville, Winchester, Georgetown and Frankfort — won’t be closing entirely, but will be supported by “community partners,” said Kim Brannock, a spokeswoman for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet.

When asked if that meant people would be able to obtain face-to-face help with unemployment issues, Brannock said services would be decided on a case-by-case basis.

“What we’re hoping to do is make our staff more mobile, but also use technology to serve our customers anywhere they are,” Brannock said.

Hal Heiner, secretary of the Education and Workforce Development cabinet, said some of the regional centers would “potentially” close. He said the decision would be left up to local Workforce Development boards to decide if they wanted to keep the centers open, what services would be provided and how often. He said centers may still be open on a part-time basis.

Currently, the centers offer employment services and assistance with unemployment benefits. They help train workers, help workers write resumes and help businesses find qualified candidates to fill positions.

Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said he has several questions about the changes.

“If there are fewer front-line workers to help people when they walk through the door, how does that impact the training that is offered?” Bailey asked.

When asked how the changes would affect an unemployed Kentuckian in the next few days, Heiner said he wasn’t sure.

“We’ll know more about that within six weeks depending on where that person lives,” Heiner said.

He added that unemployed workers will have a new way to connect to help via phone or internet, and that he wants to see a shift of focus in the Office of Employment and Training from primarily offering unemployment insurance to primarily offering career services.

In an internal email obtained by the Herald-Leader, the cabinet said it would rely on a “more mobile” staff and technology to provide services for the unemployed.

“Our main priorities for ongoing workforce transformation efforts include less emphasis on bricks and mortar and a larger emphasis on technology that allows customers to access services remotely and staff the mobility to travel throughout the region to serve customers in a variety of locations,” the unsigned email said. “In addition, we will make the twelve hubs comprehensive, compelling centers across the state offering a full range of career coaching, job-search workshops and career services.”

In recent years, the Office of Employment and Training has been struggling financially. The office had a hiring freeze in place over the last two years, resulting in an 18 percent decrease in field personnel and a 25 percent decrease in office personnel.

While the office has attempted to supplement their funds with more federal grants, it still had a $4.6 million deficit in fiscal year 2016, according to the internal email.

Senate President Robert Stivers talks about Kentucky's 2017 General Assembly with its emphasis on jobs creation.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics