Jobless Kansans go weeks without benefits as problems linger
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansans who have lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic say they are going weeks or months without unemployment benefits they are due, and some lawmakers say they can’t get answers from the state Department of Labor about its problems with aging technology.
Problems persist nearly six months after the department’s former leader resigned amid unemployment missteps. Unemployed Kansans have taken to social media, saying they have gone weeks without receiving benefits they’re due. Some of them say the department has told them a technology “glitch” is to blame.
The Labor Department is scheduled to make its last extended benefits payments this week, while federally funded enhanced pandemic-related benefits programs are set to expire on Dec. 26.
Republican legislators on a committee overseeing the state’s pandemic recovery suggested this week that the department is being evasive about what’s going on, describing it as “a nightmare” or “a debacle.” The agency and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly have for months blamed the agency’s 40-year-old computer system that is used to administer programs approved by Congress this year to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
“All too often, their answers are half-answers or no answers at all,” said Rep. Sean Tarwater, of Stilwell, the top House Republican on the oversight panel.
Ryan Wright, the department’s acting secretary since June, declined an interview request from The Associated Press, but agency spokesman Gerald Grasso responded to emailed questions. He said the department will outline the cost of replacing its old computers for the Legislature after it reconvenes in January.
Kelly acknowledged during a Statehouse news conference that the department has had “huge problems” with unemployment claims for months. But she said “most people are being taken care of.”
“We’re making tremendous progress,” she said.
Grasso didn’t say what specific “glitch” is causing Kansans to receive benefits late but said the computer system is “antiquated.”
Jon Olmstead, 40, a Wichita parent of three children, runs a business with his wife cleaning offices, but they lost work when clients closed workplaces. He said that in August, the Department of Labor told him he was due $239 a week in enhanced benefits, but he hasn’t received his first payment.
Olmstead’s family is paying rent with help from the state Eviction Prevention Program, but that runs out next month.
“I haven’t even opened my gas bill because I’m afraid to look at it,” Olmstead said.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat and Kelly ally, said Tuesday that the problems probably won’t disappear until legislators pay for a new computer system.
As for the department, Sawyer said, “They are over-worked and frustrated themselves.”
Lawmakers said constituents report multiple problems. Some still wait weeks to get benefits, applicants have trouble reaching the department by phone, and a program providing extra benefits and benefits for self-employed workers faces so many fraudulent claims that people entitled to benefits can’t get them.
Grasso said the department has stopped more than 157,000 fraudulent claims, mostly for expanded benefits.
“Depending on what day it is and who you talk to, there’s all kinds of reasons that they give you,” said Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican.
Grasso said the department is facing a backlog of 5,500 unemployment claims but hopes to have it eliminated by the end of the year. The agency also has a backlog of 25,000 enhanced benefits claims, though Grasso said applicants are now able to log on and download documents to back up their claims.
“We believe we will be able to bring down this backlog quickly,” he said. Kelly told reporters that the backlog already has been slashed to perhaps 7,000 cases.
Grasso said any outstanding benefit payment approved by the department will be paid “even if the federal program has ended.”
Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.