Kentucky’s local leaders, business leaders, labor groups, and safety net providers are running out of patience with their senior Sen. Mitch McConnell, who as Senate majority leader is arguably the most powerful man in the government. They’re meeting a brick wall with their pleas for him to help save the state during this coronavirus crisis, The Washington Post reports: “In more than two dozen interviews, out-of-work residents, struggling restaurant owners and other business leaders, as well as a cadre of annoyed food, housing and labor rights groups, all said they are in dire need of more support from Congress—the likes of which McConnell has not been able to provide.”
“I’m not sure why he didn’t listen to his constituents when we organized sign-on letters, we organized calls with his staff,“ said Adrienne Bush, the executive director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky. “[W]e had another virtual lobby day on July 21. […] The response was, ‘We’ll take your concerns to the leader.’” The leader apparently doesn’t feel the need to respond to his constituents or to the Post, as he declined to comment on this story. He passed on hearing from people like Lexington resident Michael Holland, a 59-year-old electrician who has been off the job since February. “The $600 a week has been a lifeline,” he told the Post, speaking about the enhanced unemployment insurance (UI) benefits that McConnell allowed to expire last month, after diddling around for a few weeks trying to negotiate with his own squabbling Republican senators on a replacement and then abandoning the effort completely.
McConnell didn’t want to re-up that $600/week because, he said on the floor, “it dis-incentivizes re-hiring and re-opening to pay people more to stay home.“ That’s not a compelling argument for Holland. “There are some people, I’m sure, that are bringing home more than they were making before the pandemic,” he said. “But there’s also those of us who’s making a lot less. […] What about those of us who need a job, and can’t get a job, because the coronavirus is coming back?”
McConnell doesn’t particularly care. He doesn’t want to hear from Holland, or from Michael Halligan, director of a network of Kentucky food banks called God’s Pantry. McConnell doesn’t care that the food bank distributed 3.6 million pounds of food to needy Kentuckians in the month of July alone, or about the fact that the loss of that $600/week is going to create much more demand. “You can speculate on the impact on the various programs and how that influenced the economy,” Halligan said. “Based on our historical knowledge, if economics tighten, food insecurity will increase.” For some unknown reason, Halligan believes McConnell still might help. “The elected officials, the legislative leaders in the House and Senate,” he said, “they really understand what the needs of those who are hungry are.” His faith seems misplaced.
About 200,000 households in Kentucky are in danger of losing their homes, Bush, the housing director, told the Post. The average rent in Kentucky is $1,100. The base rate for UI benefits, which the state has reverted to since the bonus expired, goes from a minimum of $39/week to a maximum $502/week. So an unemployed person receiving the maximum would now have to spend more than half of their income on rent.
Many of those unemployed are Kentucky’s coal miners, 200 of whom lost their jobs in July alone. The coal communities of eastern Kentucky, already among the state’s poorest, are being hit with the combined effects of being reliant on a dying industry and the coronavirus. “It’s like some of the final blows for working miners in the region,” said Wes Addington, the executive director of the Appalachian Law Center. Those 200 who lost their jobs when Rhino Energy filed for bankruptcy last month won’t even have the cushion of the $600/week bonus. It’s gone now. It’s enough to turn a self-described “die-hard Republican” like 42-year-old Kenny Saylor, a trucker, against McConnell. In April, he said, ”everything went south for me.” Unemployment payments have helped him get by since then, but now that they’re gone? “I’m scared to death of losing everything,” he said. McConnell doesn’t want to hear from him, though.
Here’s what McConnell does care about and who he actually does listen to back in Kentucky: the Chamber of Commerce. In his failed bill, McConnell did include liability protections for employers who might be sued if their employees came back to work and were infected by the virus. “For us, that is a huge win, and that is a huge benefit,” Chamber of Commerce president Ashli Watts told the Post. Big corporate Kentucky still loves him. Small business Kentucky, not so much.
“If we don’t get the kind of help we need […] a town that had 100 restaurants now has 20, which means 80 percent of the hospitality jobs are gone,” said Dan Wu, the owner of Atomic Ramen in Lexington. “The tax revenue is down, and the whole city and state’s economy is going to be down.” Another restaurant owner, Ouita Michel, says sales in her restaurants are down 72% from last year. She says that the state’s business owners are at a “tipping point“ with McConnell. “He’s in a position right now where he does need to listen very carefully to what constituents tell him,” she said.
He might be in that position, but he’s shown no inclination to actually listen, even as the $120 million a week in federal stimulus that’s been pouring into Kentucky dries up. That’s the money that’s kept people paying rent and supporting local retailers and services and keeping restaurants open. “We’re seeing huge numbers of people needing help,” said Jason Bailey, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. “I can’t imagine a state that needs additional relief more than Kentucky does.”