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TOPEKA — The good news for out-of-work Kansans: Expanded access to state and federal assistance they desperately need.
The bad news: They can expect severe delays as they seek help through an overwhelmed unemployment system.
More than 200,000 Kansans filed initial unemployment claims in seven weeks as the COVID-19 pandemic brought everyday life to a halt and crippled the state’s economy. The Kansas Department of Labor struggled to handle the unprecedented volume of calls and claims with its small staff and antiquated system, leaving the agency vulnerable to outrage and political crossfire.
There were website crashes, system failures, delays in payments and unanswered questions.
Labor secretary Delia Garcia says the situation has improved with the deployment of an IT SWAT team, additional help from the Amazon call center, and hiring and training of staff members who can assist with unemployment claims.
Still, if you call today to get help with your claim, you should plan to be on hold for five hours.
"We absolutely understand the pain, the frustration, the anger and hurt," Garcia said. "We try not to take the not-so-nice comments personally. We just keep working because we know people are counting on us."
Garcia in a conversation for The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Capitol Insider podcast reflected on the "bumpy road" her agency has navigated in recent weeks, outlined federal programs that will boost unemployment aid and revealed plans to provide worker’s compensation to first responders infected by COVID-19.
The most recent unemployment numbers, for the week ending April 25, include 111,128 continued claims and 27,663 new ones. Before the pandemic, with the state’s unemployment rate at a 40-year low, the agency typically fielded 1,800 claims per week.
To handle those claims, the labor department had a staff of 20 individuals capable of working their way through a computer system developed in the late 1970s.
"Literally within 72 hours, this happens to us," Garcia said. "We were not staffed up."
The agency turned to retirees and even fired employees to boost staffing, and began training others from inside the labor department and across state government. There are now 60 people who can help file claims.
Gov. Laura Kelly said she is confident Garcia has done everything possible to lessen the inevitable problems that have plagued the unemployment system. Kelly dispatched a team of technological gurus who worked nonstop through Easter weekend to bolster the unemployment portal at getkansasbenefits.gov.
"A lot of the bugs have been worked out," Kelly said. "We still have people over there watching it like a hawk day in and day out."
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita and a GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, has been critical of the way Kelly’s administration handled the surge in unemployment claims. At one point, Wagle tried to deliver hundreds of emailed complaints to the labor department office, only to find out the doors were locked.
"I am working directly with desperate Kansans who just want to be able to go back to work and feed their families and are sick and tired of excuses," Wagle said. "Their stories are heart wrenching. A slight delay at first was forgivable but many are pushing up against two months with no money coming in, no answers, and still sitting on hold with mixed messages from this governor."
Garcia said she was preparing to solicit bids to develop a new system, which could cost $35 million on the low end, before the pandemic hit. The state began a similar process to overhaul the system a decade ago, but the project was spiked after former Gov. Sam Brownback took office.
The Legislature during the Brownback years also lowered the number of weeks an individual could claim unemployment to 16 instead of the federal standard of 26. This year, the Legislature extended benefits back to 26 weeks, effective until April of 2021, in response to pandemic.
An array of programs passed by Congress extend access to benefits and add $600 in federal cash to weekly payments by the state. The state implemented the additional payments, which last through July 25, at the end of April. Those who previously filed claims can expect back payments, Garcia said.
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program provides up to 39 weeks of unemployment compensation to individuals who are self-employed, independent contractors, nonprofit employees, gig workers and those who work part-time. These individuals need to file a claim for traditional unemployment benefits. After they are denied, they will automatically be eligible for the federal program, which provides assistance from Jan. 27 to Dec. 26.
Another program, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, adds 13 weeks of payments for those who have exhausted their regular benefits.
Garcia said she was working to modify rules and regulations for workers’ compensation to ensure first responders qualify if they become infected with COVID-19. The assumption will be that health care workers, law enforcement, firefighters and medical technicians who get sick will have been exposed through their job.
Many front-line workers across the state are voluntary or part-time and sometimes don’t have health insurance.
"This is something that we are proposing and seeing where we can go with this," Garcia said.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Sunday reported that 134 people have died from the coronavirus in Kansas, and more than 5,000 have tested positive.