Mitch McConnell caught in the middle of Kentucky’s economic crisis

So they hit the streets on Thursday, drove down to McConnell’s Louisville office and started to circle the block, their 30 or so vehicles plastered with not-so-subtle orange and gray signs featuring a family-friendly rewrite of a popular Rihanna tune.

The labor protest marked only the latest in a series of exasperated complaints from Kentuckians directed at McConnell (R), as some locals find themselves frustrated by the absence of their powerful political representative on Capitol Hill. 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.

About five months after Kentucky reported its first loss of life from covid-19, its economy continues to sputter amid the coronavirus pandemic. Many unemployed workers say their benefit checks aren’t enough to afford their bills, and some here simply have stopped looking for jobs. Businesses say they’re also hemorrhaging cash, and local governments fear they’re on the precipice of financial ruin, too.

The economic tumult in Kentucky is vast, and it has added new urgency to the political standoff on Capitol Hill, where the prospect of a prolonged deadlock could worsen the financial woes in a state that was hurting long before the pandemic arrived. Caught in the middle is McConnell, 78, who some critics say has struggled to navigate the priorities of the president, the political desires of a fractious Republican conference and the economic needs in his own backyard.

McConnell declined to be interviewed for this story. His spokesman, Robert Steurer, said in a statement that the Senate majority leader’s efforts have directed approximately $12 billion to Kentucky. The aid originates in large part from previous coronavirus relief legislation, which Steurer said would help “address urgent housing, transportation, health care, education and economic development priorities” in the state.

For Kenny Saylor, the money was good before the pandemic began this spring. The 42-year-old in Corbin, Ky., once a bustling railroad shipping hub in the southeast part of the Bluegrass State, had been driving his own truck, hauling returns six days a week for Amazon to the pallet stores that sell off consumers’ unwanted purchases.

But business began to slow around April, “and that’s when everything went south for me,” Saylor said. Unemployment payments helped fill the gap, but the reprieve proved short-lived after lawmakers in Washington failed to authorize additional coronavirus stimulus aid. A self-described “die-hard Republican” his entire life, Saylor said he has now found himself angry with some of the GOP leaders who had long represented him, including McConnell.

“I’m scared to death of losing everything,” he said.

The country’s economic unraveling — the worst in a generation — has spared no community from severe hardship. But in a state like Kentucky, where some communities already had been grappling with joblessness, poverty and stagnation, the coronavirus often has made matters worse. About half of all adult residents have seen some reduction in their employment income. Meanwhile, about a quarter of a million residents say they do not get enough food to eat, and nearly one-third of households are struggling to pay their rents and mortgages, federal data show.

“We’re seeing huge numbers of people needing help,” said Jason Bailey, the executive director of the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, who added: “I can’t imagine a state that needs additional relief more than Kentucky does.”

The pandemic initially shuttered restaurants in urban centers like Lexington for a time, and it closed automakers’ factory floors in Bowling Green and Louisville for months. But some of the communities hit hardest are in Kentucky’s poorer, eastern region, where years of declines in demand for coal have collided with the coronavirus. In Pike and other counties, for example, coal operators owned by Rhino Energy laid off about 200 workers in July alone as the firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, local labor records show.

“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, which represents miners’ health and safety interests.

In the face of those financial difficulties, many Kentucky residents had counted on enhanced unemployment payments that offered them an additional $600 in weekly support. Congress authorized the aid program as part of the wide-ranging $2 trillion Cares Act that President Trump signed into law in late March.

For residents such as Michael Holland, the additional federal aid offered a critical cushion. A contract industrial engineer by trade, the 59-year-old resident of Lexington had been wiring Amazon facilities and Toyota factories for years until the coronavirus crisis forced him off the job in February and into the ranks of the unemployed.

“The $600 a week has been a lifeline,” said Holland, 59, speaking of an enhanced federal benefit that expired last month.

Local economists said federal stimulus programs have brought $120 million a week into Kentucky, sustaining not only the people who receive the checks, but also the shops, restaurants and businesses that otherwise aren’t likely to see any commercial activity. But a chorus of Republicans, including McConnell, have argued that the $600 weekly aid payments were so high that they deter people from returning to work.

McConnell ultimately declined to include that amount in the stimulus proposal he put forward, called the Heals Act. “Our view, which a majority of Americans share, is simply that it dis-incentivizes re-hiring and re-opening to pay people more to stay home,” McConnell said in a floor speech Monday. Instead, the GOP proposal calls for a smaller sum, starting at about $200 a week. McConnell previously has said he is open to supporting a deal between congressional Democrats and the White House if it can obtain broad support.

Over the weekend, Trump signed a policy directive that could offer out-of-work Americans an additional $400 each week, but it is unclear whether states including Kentucky can take advantage of the program. For now, though, the lapse in unemployment payments has spawned a wave of criticism in McConnell’s home state.

“There are some people, I’m sure, that are bringing home more than they were making before the pandemic,” Holland 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?”

Holland, an independent voter, said McConnell in particular had only left him “madder,” adding: “Democrats and Republicans have made this a fricking political issue when it shouldn’t be political, it ought to be what’s best for the country.”

The dissatisfaction comes as McConnell, already the longest serving Senate Republican leader in history, seeks re-election to a seventh term. His democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, has sought to use the pandemic against him, but McConnell is not considered at risk of losing his seat. He has repeatedly framed the election in terms of whether Kentucky voters want to keep the only congressional leader who’s not from California or New York in office, with all the clout that brings, or replace him with an unexperienced newcomer.

This summer, Kentucky’s jobless rate unexpectedly appeared to improve dramatically, reaching a nation-leading low of 4.3 percent. As the state started to reopen, some companies even brought back workers who had been out of a job for months. But the gains have not been universal, and local economists said the figure masks a hard truth: The number of active participants in the labor force has fallen by about 5 percent since February, recent federal indicators show. In other words, fewer people in Kentucky are seeking new jobs, evincing a sense of resignation among workers in the middle of a public health crisis.

In Pikeville, Ky., Michael Halligan said he has seen the extent of the economic need firsthand. So many families have lined up at the network of food banks he runs, called God’s Pantry, that it took staff here about 12 hours during one weekend in April just to get meals to everyone.

The demand has ebbed a bit, as Kentuckians have taken home additional federal aid, but the seven locations that Halligan oversees still distributed approximately 3.6 million pounds of food in July alone, he said. For him and other food security experts, it has raised critical, urgent questions about what might happen as the government’s stimulus programs begin to run their course and people in Kentucky and across the country see their bank accounts dwindle even further.

“You can speculate on the impact on the various programs and how that influenced the economy,” he said. “Based on our historical knowledge, if economics tighten, food insecurity will increase.”

Halligan and a chorus of advocates recently urged McConnell and his staff in meetings to expand a low-income program known as SNAP to pay more benefits to workers, complimenting other coronavirus aid programs. They see the food-stamp benefits as a critical economic lifeline, helping not only families, but the grocery stores, farmers and other supply-chain companies that rely on those dollars.

But the barrage of outreach, as recently as last week, has not immediately yielded much help for Kentucky’s poorest, as the GOP leader’s proposal eschewed a major boost to SNAP or other federal safety-net programs that help people in need afford food. The omission provoked widespread criticism in the Bluegrass State and around the country, though Halligan said he has confidence in McConnell and is not yet dismayed.

“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.”

A coalition of housing advocates had taken similar pleas to McConnell in recent weeks, seeking support particularly for renters in a state where eviction protections are far from guaranteed. Approximately 200,000 households in Kentucky are at risk of losing their homes in the next four months, said Adrienne Bush, the executive director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky, but she fretted that her group’s entreaties failed to result in much support from the GOP leader.

“I’m not sure why he didn’t listen to his constituents when we organized sign-on letters, we organized calls with his staff … we had another virtual lobby day on July 21,” Bush said. “The response was, ‘We’ll take your concerns to the leader.’”

For his part, McConnell has stressed that his efforts have provided other aid to needy Kentuckians. That includes new money proposed to help schools bring students back safely and assist health workers as they continue to confront a surge of coronavirus infections, including in Kentucky, where the pandemic recently has reached its more rural areas. McConnell for months held off on introducing his own Senate coronavirus relief bill, even as House Democrats passed their own, out of a belief that the federal government should spend the money it had already authorized before approving more.

“I think the country needs one last boost,” McConnell said during an appearance in Louisville last month, part of a summer, election-year swing through his home state.

McConnell’s proposal also includes long-sought liability protections for businesses wary that they may be sued if workers contract the virus. The idea is highly contested by Democrats, but it has won him favor among corporate leaders, including those in Kentucky, who had lobbied aggressively for a legal shield that might help them reopen without worry.

“For us, that is a huge win, and that is a huge benefit,” said Ashli Watts, the president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

But other Kentucky businesses say they have struggled mightily to get the full range of aid they have sought. The hard-hit hospitality sector — still reeling in a pandemic that has made social gathering impossible — has labored for months to obtain McConnell’s blessings for additional aid and tax breaks largely to no avail.

Ouita Michel, 56, owns a network of restaurants across central Kentucky, including a po’ boy shop in Lexington and a farm-to-table fine-dining spot in Midway. But her business hasn’t been bustling lately, as public health restrictions have cut into her sales, which are down 72 percent compared with the same period last year, she said.

Michel and her restaurant peers joined a coalition to lobby for federal help earlier this summer, repeatedly pleading with McConnell’s local aides. Last week, the Independent Restaurant Coalition set its sights on Kentucky, where local chefs and distillers highlighted the economic peril they may face in the absence of help from Congress — and high-profile advocacy from McConnell.

“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 the fast-casual Atomic Ramen in Lexington. “The tax revenue is down, and the whole city and state’s economy is going to be down.”

Michel described the situation as a “tipping point” for McConnell among business owners and others throughout Kentucky. “He’s in a position right now where he does need to listen very carefully to what constituents tell him,” she said.

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