Ohio Valley Weekly Unemployment Claims Down Slightly To 82K Thursday, Jun 4 2020 

As the Ohio Valley continues its phased-in reopening, unemployment insurance claims are down slightly compared to the week before. The region is still reporting high levels of unemployment assistance applications.

At least 82,011 people in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia joined those seeking help during the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The data released Thursday morning by the U.S. Department of Labor shows about 1.8 million unemployment claims around the country for the week ending May 30, bringing the country’s total jobless applicants to almost 42 million since mid-March.

Labor Department figures show Kentucky with 42,793 claims; Ohio with 34,638; and West Virginia with 4,535.

These unemployment claims come as the three states are reopening their economies. The data reported to the U.S. Department of Labor only accounts for unemployment assistance that has been processed.

Ohio Valley Anti-Hunger Advocates Worry Region Overlooked In Over $1 Billion Federal Food Box Program Friday, May 29 2020 

A new federal program is buying more than $1 billion in farm products such as dairy, produce and meat unable to be sold due to the pandemic’s disruptions to the food supply and send “food boxes” to needy families. But some anti-hunger advocates worry that parts of the Ohio Valley may be overlooked in getting this aid.

The Farmers to Families Food Box Program, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, awarded approximately 200 companies across the country contracts to purchase food and then distribute it to local nonprofits and food pantries. Kentucky and West Virginia were among  12 states where no companies were awarded contracts. Contracts awarded to Ohio companies are located near Cleveland, apart from Appalachia.

“By and large, Kentucky was really left behind. We’re not really going to benefit on the supply side of Kentucky producers being able to provide their products,” said Tamara Sandberg, executive director for Feeding Kentucky, a nonprofit network of food banks in the state. “We’re definitely not going to benefit on the consumer side because we’ve not been named in any of the winning bids.”

Sandberg said she is aware of some organizations in Kentucky receiving food boxes. Dare to Care Food Bank in Louisville is receiving boxes with poultry and dairy products, for example. But she’s still concerned large swaths of the state are being left out of the program.

She also said several Kentucky food banks had reached out to New York-based Tasty Brands, a school food supplier who was awarded several contracts, about receiving food boxes but were told all their food boxes were already being delivered elsewhere. Sandberg said the specter of receiving little of this aid is especially worrisome, given the Ohio Valley has recently ranked among states with the highest rates of food insecurity among some age groups.

“There has been a 40% increase in the people served by the food bank network, and a third of those people have never come to a food bank for help before,” Sandberg said. “The need for this food assistance amid this pandemic has increased exponentially.”

Cynthia Kirkhart leads the Facing Hunger Food Bank in Huntington, West Virginia. She said despite several local companies applying for contracts through this program, none of those companies received contracts. Kirkhart said her organization wasn’t sure if they were going to receive aid until an out-of-state company from Pittsburgh that was awarded a contract reached out to her food bank. She said she’s expecting food boxes to be received Thursday.

“We’ll do what we need to, to access these food resources and see what happens,” Kirkhart said. “This had to happen really quick with a certain level of uncertainty, but we’re happy to have the product.”

A spokesperson with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service said in a statement that because the program is new, some adjustments may be made in coming weeks, and that USDA was working to try to expand the program to underserved regions of the country.

Some Democrats in the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, including Marcia Fudge of Ohio, have also questioned the USDA on the reported lack of experience some contract awardees have in distributing food. Contracts were awarded to major meatpacking companies including Cargill, and an event planning company. The program runs through June 30.

Questions And Anxiety Mount Over COVID-19 Workplace Safety As More Businesses Reopen Friday, May 29 2020 

Gail Fleck is a school cafeteria worker in the greater Cincinnati area and lives with her 90-year-old father. She loves her job because she gets to work with kids. But she is worried she won’t be able to keep her dad safe if her work exposes her to the coronavirus and she unknowingly brings it home. 

“I’m scared, I’m worried. I feel like, we’re talking about life and death here and this is my father,” she said. 

Fleck, who didn’t want to name her workplace, said she hasn’t been back to work since before the schools went on spring break. When she ran out of sick days, she stopped receiving a paycheck. 

“I’ve just worked very hard at keeping myself and my father at home and not going out,” she said. 

Workers like Fleck across the Ohio Valley face difficult choices now that states are gradually reopening workplaces. Many don’t feel safe going back to work, and adding to the anxiety is the uncertainty about the enforcement of safety standards for businesses that are reopening. During pointed questioning at a Congressional hearing Thursday a top official with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was not able to say how many workplaces are seeing cases of COVID-19.  

Who Keeps Workers Safe?

OSHA is the main federal agency responsible for enforcing workplace safety standards. Ohio and West Virginia are among roughly half the states where OSHA has direct oversight of most work safety regulations. Kentucky is among the states with a federally approved work safety program administered by the state. The Kentucky Labor Cabinet said it is working with businesses to ensure they are complying with Kentucky’s minimum requirements.

“Notes of Deficiency, and if necessary, orders to cease operations will be issued to businesses that demonstrate they are not making substantive efforts to comply with the reopening requirements,” Kentucky Labor Cabinet Chief of Staff Marjorie Arnold said in an email.

Some work safety advocates have criticized the federal OSHA’s lack of involvement in workplaces during the coronavirus pandemic.

Safety and Health Program Director at the left-leaning nonprofit National Employment Law Project, Deborah Berkowitz, said OSHA should be taking more action to help keep workers safe. 

“The sad reality is that OSHA is failing here,” Berkowitz said. “They’ve actually just walked away from this whole pandemic and decided that though they could, they’re not going to do any enforcement. They’re not going to issue any mandates that are requirements, and instead, they’ll issue a poster or publication.”

Berkowitz was previously chief of staff and senior policy adviser for OSHA under the Obama administration. She advises if employers are not following the Centers for Disease Control guidance, the employee should file a complaint with OSHA. 

“Even though they’re not going to go out and do an inspection, I think they will call the employer and say a complaint has been filed,” Berkowitz said.  

She also said local health departments should be notified, in order for community spread to be prevented. Ultimately, Berkowitz said localities need to be smart about reopening and not sacrifice the safety of workers for the health of the economy. 

“But if you cut corners, and say that employers can do whatever they want at work, then most likely, you will see what’s happening in meatpacking plants and poultry plants right now around the country, and that is the spread of this disease will whip like wildfires around the workplace and back into the community,” she said. 

Heated Hearing

In an Education and Labor Committee House hearing Thursday witnesses with OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were questioned about their role in keeping workers safe in the era of COVID-19. 

Principal Deputy Secretary of OSHA Loren Sweatt defended her agency’s decision against a new regulatory standard on coronavirus safety.

In questions from Democrats on the panel Sweatt was not able to say how many workplaces have reported cases of coronavirus. She also told the committee that a lawsuit against the agency, filed by the AFL-CIO, prevented her from answering some questions about OSHA’s actions. 

Sweatt said there have been at least 1,374 whistleblower COVID-19 complaints as of May 26. However, none of those businesses have been sanctioned for retaliation against employees. She said there’s no statute of limitations on investigations of those complaints. 

“While investigations are ongoing I can tell you in certain circumstances, we have seen resolution almost immediately when the whistleblower calls to initiate the investigation,” Sweatt said. 

Sweatt clarified that a resolution means a worker getting their job back as well as back pay after allegedly being punished by their employer for making a complaint to OSHA. 

NIOSH Director John Howard said his organization has just started tracking coronavirus cases in the workplace, about two months after the virus was declared a pandemic. 

“We have been getting better at tracking occupation and industry for COVID-19 cases,” he said. “We have a new case report form that we are hoping that the states will start using.”

Howard said NIOSH is now beginning to track coronavirus cases in meatpacking plants. Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia have all seen large outbreaks in meat processing facilities as workers try to keep up with soaring demand from consumers. 

Back To Work

Ohio Valley workers are left to navigate a lot of uncertainty as many of them return to work amid health and safety concerns. And some state actions appear to limit an employees’ options. For example, in Ohio, the state’s Department of Job and Family Services now has a form online where employers can report employees who quit or refuse to work due to concerns about COVID-19. Officials in Ohio say the form has always been available online but has only changed focus so employers can report workers who use the fear of contracting the virus as a reason for not wanting to return to work. 

Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia have been working to reopen their economies a few sectors at a time. The first sector to reopen was healthcare. Now restaurants are opening to in-person dining, as well as recreational activities, fitness centers, and cosmetology services. Many of the facilities aren’t the same as they were pre-pandemic, with limited occupancy and increased personal protective equipment for customers and workers. 

Tom Tsai is an assistant professor in Health Policy and Management at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Global Health Institute. 

“The overall message, though is more important than the thresholds for reopening, is that this is not an on-off switch, but really a dial,” he said. “The states need to really consider having very clear metrics on what success or failure looks like.”

Tsai said there is already some “social distancing fatigue” people are feeling and that’s why it’s important to get the policy correct now.

“Because in some ways, once the floodgates open, in terms of trying to return to normal, it’s going to be very hard to reinstitute social distancing measures,” he said.

Ohio Valley Unemployment Claims Exceed 100,000 Thursday, May 28 2020 

As some businesses in the Ohio Valley reopen and welcome back both customers and employees the region continues reporting high levels of unemployment claims.

At least 100,863 people in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia joined those seeking help during the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are making progress on unemployment claims filed in March as states begin a phased-in reopening.

The data released Thursday morning by the U.S. Department of Labor showing about 2.1 million unemployment claims around the country for the week ending May 23, bringing the country’s total jobless applicants to about 40 million since mid-March.

Labor Department figures show Kentucky with 53,738 claims; Ohio with 42,363; and West Virginia with 4,762.

These unemployment claims come as the three states are reopening their economies. The data reported to the U.S. Department of Labor only accounts for unemployment assistance that has been processed.

Economists Grapple With Pandemic’s Effects As Ohio Valley Officials Brace For A Fiscal Blow Tuesday, May 26 2020 

Kentucky’s state budget officials told lawmakers Friday that general fund receipts may decline by 495 million dollars next fiscal year. It’s just the latest example of the unprecedented financial hardships ahead for the Ohio Valley’s state and local governments due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

More than 38 million Americans have applied for unemployment insurance in the past nine weeks, about 2.5 million of them in the Ohio Valley states of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. 

Even economists find figures like that hard to reckon with. John Deskins directs the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. He says the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic challenges standard approaches to economic modelling and forecasting, which rely on recent patterns in data. But data since mid-March are completely unprecedented.

“The notion that the national economy would go from 3-point-something percent unemployment to 20-something over the course of 6 weeks? We’ve never heard of that before!” he said. 

Then there are the unknowns regarding what happens with the virus itself: Will there be a large second wave of infections? When will a vaccine arrive? But even with those uncertainties, economists like Jason Bailey say the outlook is grim. Bailey is the executive director of the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy and says even the rosier scenarios in his control forecast show economic conditions will likely be worse than those during the 2008 financial crisis. 

“The control forecast is still a terrible forecast when it comes to the economy, when it comes to the unemployment, when it comes to revenue for government,” he said. “It’s still worse, by far, than anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.” 

So while details of the economic forecast for Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia remain murky, the existing data reveal the outlines of mammoth losses that economists and local leaders expect the coronavirus to have on state and municipal budgets. Experts say the unprecedented budget shortfalls could lead to layoffs for public-sector workers like school guidance counselors and city maintenance workers; cuts to funding for local festivals; and the shelving of arts and cultural programming.

Just how big those cuts will be may largely depend on the outcome of the current Congressional debate about further federal aid.

Cities and Towns

Without further stimulus from the federal government, Kentucky cities expect to lose about $85 million between them by the end of the next fiscal year, and as much as $180 million the following fiscal year, according to a survey of mayors conducted by advocacy group the Kentucky League of Cities. 

Mayors reported the shortfalls could result in cuts to parks budgets (85 percent of respondents), public works (80 percent) and police services (54 percent). Of Kentucky’s 416 mayors, 102 responded to the KLC’s survey. 

In recessions, the experts say, education, social services and the arts are the first budget items to go. 

“Some people disagree about whether cities should be in the business of parks and recreation,” said KLC executive director J.D. Chaney. “But if this crisis has shown us anything, it’s that people can work from anywhere. So if you want people to live in your town, you have to make it a nice place to live.” 

A March bill from the federal government, the CARES Act, included $150 billion to reimburse cities for expenses related to the coronavirus. But that funding is limited to cities with more than 500,000 people, leaving small and mid-sized cities worried. Besides, Chaney said, he started hearing from mayors across Kentucky that the issue wasn’t an expenditure problem: It was a revenue problem. Residents weren’t paying their utility bills; property, retail and income taxes were expected to plummet. 

“Before this all came about, we were sort of doing a balancing act to provide services with the limited budget we already had,” said Todd DePriest, mayor of the eastern Kentucky city of Jenkins, population less than 2,000. “Just looking at utilities, we’re somewhere between 10 and 20 percent in terms of collections compared to where we were before. That don’t sound like a lot, but when you’re already borderline operating anyway, it really cuts into what you can do.” 

DePriest has already started making changes: Police cars will receive maintenance less frequently, and purchases like new tires for utility vehicles will be put off for as long as possible. 

Seeking Federal Aid

The state of Kentucky also expects significant revenue loss related to the pandemic. In a recent report, the Governor’s Office for Economic Analysis projected a revenue shortfall ranging from $318.7 to $495.7 million, and fourth quarter totals may be as much as 23.7 percent lower than in the same quarter the previous year.

The shortfall is largely a consequence of skyrocketing unemployment in Kentucky and around the country, with roughly 2.5 million people in the Ohio Valley filing for benefits since mid-March. 

The unemployed, explained Jason Bailey, “Are not buying, so they’re not paying sales taxes, and they’re not employed, so they’re not having income taxes withheld.”

Corporate taxes are also expected to fall short of original estimates, as commercial and industrial activity will likely remain low in the coming months. “If movie theaters start going bankrupt, all of a sudden you’re going to see a lot of urban real estate that’s not paying taxes,” said Rea Hederman of Ohio’s right-leaning Buckeye Institute. 

“As these budget cuts start to come down,” said Policy Matters Ohio executive director Hannah Halbert. “Looking at those cuts through an equity lens, and even just a health-disparities lens, that will tell its own story: What gets cut first, which districts are harmed, and how that deepens or lessens people’s shots at a fair future.” 

Since states and localities have to balance their budgets, the depth of those cuts will largely depend on how much stimulus comes from the federal government. Organizations including the National Governors Association, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties have called on Congress to provide additional aid. 

“Many state and local governments are facing a June 30 deadline to adopt budgets,” the groups wrote in their appeal to Congress. “Without federal assistance, states, territories and local governments will be forced to make drastic cuts to the programs Americans depend on to provide economic security, educational opportunities and public safety.”

A $3 trillion bill dubbed the HEROES Act passed the Democratic-led House, but faces opposition in the Republican-led Senate. The 1,800-page bill includes items from the Democratic wish list that will surely face scrutiny, like student loan forgiveness and payments of up to $6,000 per family. Kentucky Republican and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed skepticism about further spending until there’s more data on the effects of previous bills. 

Pandemic Could Make Food Insecurity Worse Among Older Adults In Ohio Valley Monday, May 25 2020 

A new study shows the Ohio Valley has some of the nation’s highest rates of food insecurity among older adults, and anti-hunger advocates say that situation could be made worse by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The annual study was published May 21 in partnership with researchers from the University of Kentucky, researchers from University of Illinois, and the nonprofit food bank organization Feeding America. The researchers used Census Bureau survey data from 2018 which asked households with adults aged 50-59 a series of questions to determine whether they were food insecure.

Kentucky had the nation’s highest rate of food insecurity among adults in this age group, with 17.3% who were food insecure. West Virginia and Ohio also ranked among the five states with the highest rates, 16% and 14.6%, respectively. All three states also ranked among the ten states with the highest rates of older adults having “very low food security,” classified as a more severe form of food insecurity in the study.

“These three states also have a higher reliance on manufacturing and extractive and service-related industries, and those jobs have been declining,” said James Ziliak, the founding director of the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research and co-author of the study. “This is also an age group that’s at greater risk of disability, and disability is a strong indicator of food insecurity.”

Ziliak said adults in this age group may also have difficulty finding employment or better-paying employment as they reach the age when people traditionally retire, increasing the chance of food insecurity. He said as jobs have declined in industries including manufacturing and fossil fuels, jobs have also disappeared in auxiliary industries that supported those “core industries.” Ziliak also believes the impacts of the region’s opioid epidemic plays into the higher rates of food insecurity.

With the economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic causing millions in the Ohio Valley to file for unemployment, Ziliak said food insecurity among older adults could soar in the region in the years ahead.

“The economic consequences of this pandemic are clearly much more extreme than what we had in the Great Recession. Now, it’s not known how long it’s going to persist, but current projections don’t look very good,” Ziliak said.

A separate analysis issued by Feeding America in late April estimated the potential increases in food insecurity rates among all people in each state, depending on the potential increases in unemployment. The analysis estimated food insecurity rates could increase by at least 35% in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia — totaling about 941,000 new people who are food insecure — if unemployment rates were to increase by at least 7.6% in each state.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture increased food stamp benefits in late April provided through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as a part of a larger emergency measure to provide economic relief from the pandemic. Feeding Kentucky Executive Director Tamara Sandberg said that increase has been very beneficial for those struggling and argues that the increase needs to continue into the months and years ahead.

“We believe those increases need to be tied to the economic recovery and not just the public health crisis,” Sandberg said. “It’s going to take a while for the economic recovery to remain in place.”

Ziliak said the federal government should also send more direct payments to people, as done previously through the CARES Act. That, combined with increased SNAP benefits, could help combat food insecurity in the near term, he said.

With Coronavirus Roiling Food Supply, Local Agriculture Sees Resurgence Friday, May 22 2020 

IMG_0934Debby Dulworth has a lot of conversations with her cattle each day. She swings open a gate, driving the herd with repeated calls and the Hereford cattle respond in kind with groans and snorts.

“They talk to me,” Dulworth said with a laugh, as the cows come bounding out into a fresh field of Kentucky fescue and buttercups. She’s been corralling them from pasture to pasture on her farm for decades near Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky, nestled in a bend of the Ohio River.

Liam Niemeyer | Ohio Valley ReSource

Cattle farmers are seeing increased local demand amid the pandemic.

Most of the time, they move at her call. The more stubborn ones she herds with the threat of an electric wire she slowly drags through the field. The wire isn’t hot usually, but the cows don’t know that.

“They learn very quickly. They don’t like being shocked,” Dulworth said. “They’re pretty smart that way. They’re smarter than people that way.”

Dulworth and her husband sell their grass-fed beef throughout west Kentucky, much of it through word of mouth. They were worried about sales after demand last year had dropped off. Then pandemic hit.

“People started calling in, and actually it started in March and it really picked up throughout April, until now, we have way more customers than we can find processors to take,” she said.

A couple calls a month of inquiries turned into several a day — many new customers — from people wanting orders of their beef. And while they were taking new orders, they had trouble trying to meet that new demand.

Small meat processors in the region that would normally take their cattle were now telling Dulworth they didn’t have available appointments until December, or even April of next year. Other livestock farmers are also seeing a spike in demand and are trying to get their cattle processed to fulfill the new orders.

Across the Ohio Valley, farmers that sell locally are seeing skyrocketing interest in the food they offer as the pandemic brings fears of food shortages in grocery stores, slowed production in meatpacking plants caused by COVID-19 outbreaks, and a radically different grocery store experience.

Dulworth and other farmers see a moment of opportunity  to show consumers a new way to get their food locally, a way that she believes can benefit both the buyers and the local suppliers. 

Liam Niemeyer | Ohio Valley ReSource

Debby Dulworth on her cattle farm near Money’s Eyebrow, KY.

New Opportunities

For weeks on end beginning in March, Fritz Boettner was getting little sleep. 

Boettner runs the Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective in West Virginia, a cooperative that brings together produce and livestock farmers throughout the state and region to supply local food to restaurants, schools, and individuals.

While orders from restaurants had halted due to coronavirus-related shutdowns, demand from individuals was booming, from about $5,000 per week during normal circumstances to nearly $30,000 a week.

To keep up, he was spending long days just to unload produce being shipped from multiple local farms, re-package it to customers, and then reload to be sent to consumers.

“I keep buying meat from producers. First it was 50 pounds, and 100 pounds, and 300 pounds, and then bought 300 pounds — all gone in two days,” Boettner said. “I’m like ‘alright, maybe I should be buying 1000 pounds.’”

Other outlets offering Appalachian produce report a similar surge. The Chesterhill Produce Auction in southeast Ohio has seen about 60 new customers in the past two weeks looking for the ramps, asparagus, green onions, and other offerings, said Jessica Dotson, who helps run operations at the auction. During normal times last year, the auction would see only about 10 new customers a week.  

“A lot of people are coming out and buying the vegetable stocks to grow their own gardens because of the food scarcity,” Dotson said. “If they can provide for their self or get it just down the road … it’s definitely a lot better than having to rely on a big store.”

Boettner said his cooperative is a new discovery for many looking for food alternatives as shortages and higher prices affect grocery stores, largely connected to COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants. Instead of walking into a grocery store, people can pick up food packaged together in locations throughout the state.

“No one wants to go to the grocery store. And then you look at the food system in general, at a national level … and it’s scary. Meat plants shutting down because everybody has COVID,” Boettner said. “How does that affect the meat I’m eating? And then they go to the store, and it’s not there. So your traditional food systems are a little bit scary right now.”

Moving Forward

It’s not clear if this new interest in local agriculture will last, especially given the economic uncertainty that lies ahead. But Boettner said he thinks the pandemic could bring a significant shift. 

“Now, things could change if we head into a deep depression, or where no one has jobs and money in order to pay for it,” he said. “We’re not all of a sudden gonna be able to pivot and feed the entire state of West Virginia within Turnrow, it’s impossible.”

While he doesn’t think substantial change will come in the next few years, this pandemic could be a turning point to build upon small changes over the course of future decades.

“It’s still a long game,” Boettner said. “Is it a pivot point to where we can start to head that direction into a more sustainable food system?”

Boettner and other local farmers hope by introducing new people to locally-sourced agriculture they can show consumers the benefits of knowing where their food comes from and the community benefits of keeping the profits local. 

Debby Dulworth and her husband changed their business model in 2003 to sell their cattle directly to people in the region out of financial necessity, compared to sending cattle to feedlots. In the late 1990’s, they were more than $300,000 in debt after years of stagnant prices for their feedlot cattle and the purchase of a local feed mill that flopped. 

By selling cattle directly to others in west Kentucky, they could keep more of the revenue that otherwise could go to other stakeholders: those who owned the transportation taking cattle to feedlots, those who owned the feedlots, and those who owned meatpacking plants where many cattle eventually end up.

“We’re at the bottom of the food chain. And by keeping them here and doing all that work ourselves, we got to take all those profits and keep them which helped us get out of debt,” Dulworth said. “It’s not an exorbitant living, but it’s a good living.”

Another beef cattle farmer near Lewisburg, West Virginia, also sees this renewed interest as an opportunity to put more investment back in local agriculture, in a state where investment in fossil fuel industries has dominated the state.

Jennifer “Tootie” Jones said her family farm has also seen sales spike the past few months, to the point where they’ve had to hire a person to answer the phone and manage online orders.

With those in the state trying to make local agriculture a sustainable part of the regional economy, she believes the federal government and state could do more to invest in small-scale agriculture. 

She said even as she’s hired new employees in the past month, she still struggles with banks and financing for her farm.

“Look what we have here, and look at how much more money we could probably bring into our banks, bring into our businesses, loan opportunities,” Jones said. “But it’s not coal, and it’s not timber, and not stone. And I just don’t get it, because it’s the thing we all need the most — food.”

 

Another 99,000 Join Unemployed In Ohio Valley As U.S. Jobless Total Tops 38M Thursday, May 21 2020 

The U.S. Department of Labor reported close to 99,000 additional unemployment insurance claims in the last week from Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, as state unemployment offices worked their way through a backlog of millions of claims filed since the coronavirus pandemic forced business closures beginning in March.

For the week ending May 16, Kentucky reported 47,036 claims, Ohio had 46,494, and West Virginia reported 4,853. Nearly 2.5 million people have filed unemployment insurance claims in the three states since mid-March.

Nationally, the Labor Dept. reported 2.4 million unemployment claims for the week, bringing the total of jobless Americans seeking help to a staggering 38.6 million over the last nine weeks.

Rural Ohio Valley Counties Lack Sufficient Coronavirus Tests, Report Says Wednesday, May 20 2020 

Just 15% of Kentucky counties meet minimum recommended coronavirus testing levels, according to a new report from health care company Castlight. Sixty-seven percent of West Virginia counties and 31% of Ohio counties met the threshold. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that states have the capacity to test 1% of the population every seven days. 

Forty-eight states —  all but Kentucky and Colorado —  meet that threshold at the state level. But a county-by-county analysis shows that higher levels of testing in urban counties disguises a lack of adequate testing in rural areas. Nationwide, nearly twice as many counties lacking adequate tests were rural. 

Both nationwide and regionally, urban areas have been hit hardest by the coronavirus but recent outbreaks in rural counties —  largely linked to prisons, meatpacking facilities and nursing homes —  raise concern that for some rural communities, the worst may yet be to come. 

Governors in all three Ohio Valley states are in the process of loosening restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Ohio opened its barbershops, hair salons and restaurants May 15; West Virginia restaurants opened earlier this month; and Kentucky retail businesses and restaurants will be allowed to reopen at reduced capacity this week.

Federal Judge Threatens Jail Time As Coal Company Flouts Court Orders Monday, May 18 2020 

Coal company American Resources Corporation, which owns mines in Kentucky and West Virginia, is facing sanctions after failing to comply with a bankruptcy court’s orders, even after the company received $2.7 million in government aid meant for companies harmed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Indiana-based ARC purchased coal mines and equipment from bankrupt coal company Cambrian for $1 last September. The purchase came with a heavy debt burden that included environmental reclamation obligations, employee wages and health care costs, and utility bills.

Almost immediately, ARC failed to pay those expenses, leading Eastern Kentucky federal bankruptcy court Chief Judge Gregory Schaaf to impose monetary sanctions against the company. Lack of payment to employees at ARC subsidiary Quest Energy led some employees to protest this January by blocking a Pike County, Kentucky railroad.

“It’s hard to go to work between two rocks and not get paid for it,” a Quest miner who asked to be kept anonymous said at the time. “There’s men that’s getting their power bills cut off and men’s children starving.”

“There’s some concern that this is not an inability to pay, but an unwillingness to pay,” said Cambrian attorney Patricia Burgess in a May 14 hearing.

ARC received $2.7 million in loans from the federal government this April through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which was intended for small businesses.

ARC attorney Billy Shelton told Schaaf the slump in energy usage brought on by coronavirus-related shutdowns had interfered with ARC’s ability to turn a profit off the newly acquired mines, but the judge said ARC’s failure to pay began long before the pandemic.

“I am at the end of my rope with your client,” Schaaf told Shelton in the same hearing. “And I guess you need to start by telling me why I should believe anything that ARC promises to the court.”

The threat of jail time is a significant escalation in the efforts of bankruptcy judges to hold coal companies accountable for environmental and other liabilities, said Cornell University assistant visiting professor Josh Macey, author of “Bankruptcy as Bailout: Coal Company Insolvency and the Erosion of Federal Law” in the Stanford Review.

“For over a decade, coal companies have been getting rid of non-productive mines by giving them away. In a number of cases, coal companies have even paid another entity to acquire the mine. The acquirer tends to be underfunded,” Macey explained. “These transactions look like a way of offloading burdensome cleanup and retirement obligations. This has worked out reasonably well for both the buyer and the seller but not for local communities.”

Macey has documented a pattern of misuse of the bankruptcy process by coal companies, in which environmental reclamation and miners’ health obligations are loaded onto companies that have no ability to pay them, so the original companies can continue operating without the burden of those debts.

“I would expect [ARC] to liquidate given current market conditions and available liquidity. There is just not enough cash right now for them to keep operating,” he said.

The Trump administration has come under fire over the allocation of PPP funding. The first round of funding was quickly used up, with loans of more than $2 million accounting for some 25,000 loans while thousands of family-owned businesses went without.

Judge Schaaf is expected to decide later this week whether to kick the issue up to a higher court for adjudication.

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