TOPEKA, Kansas — The Kansas Department of Labor has struggled to handle an explosion of unemployment filings.
That’s left 25,000 claims waiting for approval — and thousands of Kansans standing by for the checks that could help them stay afloat through a jobless stretch in an economy battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s the latest challenge for a department that has attempted to respond to emails and phone calls from thousands of Kansans as the coronavirus caused unemployment in the state to jump from about 3% to almost 12% earlier this year. It’s since settled to 7.5%.
The huge backlog is in a holding pattern. The cases are waiting on adjudication and appeals that require more information, like why someone lost a job.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly appointed Ryan Wright acting labor secretary after the former secretary left amid criticism over the slow response to unemployment claims.
“I know it’s been extremely frustrating,” Wright told lawmakers this week. “All I can do is take responsibility for what’s happened and be as honest and transparent as possible moving forward.”
Lawmakers told state Labor Department staff about constituents waiting for months and failing to get answers on the delay in their unemployment payments.
“Hearing some of the stories of people losing their homes and their cars is heartbreaking,” Republican Sen. Richard Hilderbrand said.
Wright wouldn’t commit to a timeline for clearing people hung up in the backlog.
“What they don’t want to hear is us giving a timeframe that we’re not able to meet,” Wright said in an interview.
The backlog for regular unemployment applications is much smaller right now, about 2,300, which is caused by the normal time it takes to process the requests. Unemployed Kansans must file weekly claims and they’re often paid just a few days after claims are accepted.
Wright said there typically isn’t a significant backlog for applications in the adjudication system.
The applications accumulated as staff were shifted to other areas to deal with the influx of unemployment claims.
“We needed more people to answer the phones to take those claims in,” Wright said.
In addition, questions on the application required by the federal government caused confusion for some people and caused much of the adjudication backlog.
Kansans were frequently confused by questions on the application asking if they were able and available to work. People whose jobs were closed by the coronavirus shutdown could think they should answer no, but that flags the application for further review.
Wright said the agency is studying the legality of simply clearing thousands of people in the adjudication process who were hung up by those two questions.
Anyone caught in the backlog will be eligible for payments they missed out on because of the delay.
“If you are owed that money, you will get paid that money,” Wright said. “We will figure this out.”
The state hired a private consultant, Accenture, after the long delays and chronic problems in its unemployment benefits system became a crisis during the pandemic. That brought in 50 more people to work with the Labor Department, and freed more state workers to chip away at the adjudication backlog.
The agency has struggled with outdated technology. Information Technology Director Bill Periman told legislators that updates planned to come online could make it easier to sift through the huge pile of applications.
“We hope to have a solution,” Periman said, “if we can identify some processes where we can address the greatest pain points.”
Republican Sen. Kevin Braun urged the department to commit to a timeframe for clearing the backlog, and Periman said some improvements could be in place in 90 days.
“Our constituents are still in a very tough place,” Braun said. “We need a forecast on when we are going to stabilize.”
Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.
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