As the Kentucky General Assembly readies for the start of the 2022 legislative session in just a few weeks, it was impossible to have discussions across industry sectors without mentioning just how workforce shortages are impacting the economy.
Four sessions brought in-depth discussions on criminal justice reform, education, unemployment insurance, and other factors impacting workforce shortages. Below are highlights from each session:
Criminal Justice Reform
House Judiciary Committee Chair Ed Massey, Sen. Brandon Storm, Sen. Gerald Neal, and Rep. Jason Nemes kicked off the day with a discussion about the state of Kentucky’s criminal justice system, moderated by Volunteers of America Mid States President and CEO Jennifer Hancock.
Many criminal justice policies to improve Kentucky’s system have been passed in recent years. One of many several legislative victories in 2021 updated Kentucky’s felony theft threshold to keep people in the workforce, an effort spearheaded by Rep. Massey. Massey said there will likely be a bill filed dealing with DUIs within the first week of the 2022 session, and he expects many other related criminal justice reform bills to follow.
As for what must come next, Sen. Neal suggested that part of the problem Kentucky faces is the overall attitude toward criminal justice, and that while we are headed in the right direction on non-violent offenders, there is still a lot of work to be done. Sen. Storm said that if someone has paid their debt to society, they should be able to reenter, suggesting that the state should look at the bond system so people don’t stay in the system too long among other areas where progress is needed.
Rep. Nemes said it is important to also pay attention to the other systems that impact the criminal justice system that ensure the growth of our young Kentuckians, emphasizing a need to examine the circumstances in which Kentucky’s youth are growing up. He also stated it is important to pay police officers more to ensure Kentucky has experienced individuals serving in law enforcement.
Health Care and Substance Use Disorder Recovery
Senate Majority Caucus Chair Julie Raque Adams, House Minority Leader Joni Jenkins, House Health and Welfare Committee Chair Kim Moser, and Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chair Ralph Alvarado talked about the state of Kentucky health with Rodney Shockley, executive VP and general counsel of Forcht Group.
There have been many discussions around a critical healthcare worker shortage in Kentucky and what can be done through legislation to address the issue. One of those options is a bonus for healthcare workers. Sen. Raque Adams said the field has become so competitive, where nurses can get a new job, with a higher salary in a different state, within minutes. To keep talent within the state, Sen. Alvarado introduced legislation to address this during a special session, but it was outside of the call for the session and so it did not move forward in time.
Alvarado said there is now even more room to allocate funds up to $400 million to deal with this workforce shortage, which has been declared an emergency by the governor. He said neighboring states have already taken action through increased pay, bonuses, and more, and he hopes this will be part of a budget discussion in 2022 to help incentivize nurses to stay in the Commonwealth.
Rep. Moser said the state’s substance use disorder crisis is reaching new levels, as the overdose death rate has increased substantially during the pandemic. While there is more to be done legislatively, Moser pointed to a bill passed in 2021 that she sponsored to help with incentivizing businesses to get engaged in recovery efforts and employ individuals in recovery by providing liability protections and more structure to their efforts.
Leader Jenkins also stated a focus needs to be placed on community health workers so that people feel safe enough to seek help in their areas and noted that Rep. Moser will be proposing legislation to make those services like Medicaid reimbursable.
House Education Committee Chair Regina Huff, Rep. Killian Timoney, Rep. Adam Koenig participated in a discussion moderated by Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities President OJ Oleka.
Rep. Timoney said he wants to focus on improving the education system we currently have. This includes, he said, improving teacher quality by attracting the best and brightest to Kentucky. He pointed to the teacher shortage the state is facing with a 20% decline in workforce in recent years. “I grew up in a family where if there is a problem with your car, you don’t get a new car, you fix the one you have. And that is how we should approach education,” Timoney said.
Performance-based funding is an area of conversation, but Koenig said if the state goes in that direction, there has to be more money in the SEEK formula before making a change like that but updates need to be made.
Rep. Huff said she is prioritizing legislation to require high school students to complete Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) documents before graduation to ensure they understand the assistance they could be eligible for and help guide students on the right path.
Rebuilding the Workforce
Kentucky’s workforce has been devastated throughout the pandemic and currently ranks 48th in the nation in terms of workforce participation. But this is not a new issue for the state as we have struggled for decades with our workforce.
When the pandemic hit, Sen. Mike Nemes said the unemployment insurance system was overwhelmed, and changes that were supposed to be made before the pandemic were not. That, coupled with the rampant fraud experienced by the system and across the nation, made for an incredibly difficult experience for many. Nemes pointed to a UI reform task force where they were working to find a constructive way forward and he stated he is confident that these issues will not happen moving forward but it will not be overnight.
Rep. Josh Bray expressed frustrations that many of his constituents, by no fault of their own, lost their job. And they had lived their entire lives not needing anything from government and the one time they did, they experienced a lot of issues to get the help they needed. He added he hopes Kentucky can improve that moving forward with lessons learned. Rep. Samara Heavrin also stated that these issues the state has experienced are a good opportunity to learn from mistakes and find other systems that could also use improvements.
As for how Kentucky can address workforce shortages moving forward, Heavrin said the state must “meet people where they are at” when it comes to the workforce and biases must be overcome and the root causes of the issues within communities is critical. “Let’s talk to people and see what is preventing them from working,” she said. She also noted that more than 100,000 women have left the workforce and it impacts all areas of the state.
Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers and House Speaker David Osborne also discussed this issue and more in their panel. Read more about that here.