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KS Labor Secretary addresses unemployment system concerns

Published: Dec. 2, 2020 at 10:42 PM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Out of work Kansans are waiting on an unemployment system still desperate to catch up.

Kelsey Holmes of Topeka and her husband have an 18-month-old son, and a daughter on the way. She applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. She hasn’t received a check in July - and no one can tell her why.

“I get told I’ll be paid in two days, that two days comes, and I don’t get it,” she said. “Every time I call, they say your account looks fine, your paperwork is turned in.”

Kansas Labor Secretary Ryan Wright said understands the frustration, and says the situation is frustrating for his office, too. Since the pandemic began in March, Kansas has paid 3.2 million claims, totaling $2.3 billion. Wrights says the amount is greater than what was paid the prior eight years combined.

“No system was designed for this,” he said, noting they are trying to patch through 40-year-old computer systems to handle the deluge.

The result was cases backed up. Wright says, since he became Acting Secretary in June, the backlog of regular unemployment cases has shrunk from 25,000 to 6100. But the new federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, program involved creating a whole new administrative system. Currently, 25,000 of those claims remain stacked up.

Wright says a new piece installed and brought online this week should help.

“Now, if they log into their accounts, they can figure out what we need from them, and they can submit that online, and then we can adjudicate that and get those checks out the door, and that will happen in short order,” he said.

Wright urged anyone who might fall into the PUA backlog to long on to www.getkansasbenefits.gov to see if they are able to provide information online to get their claim moving.

Asked why staff couldn’t just answer the phones these past several months and tell people the information so they could provide the answers more quickly, Wright said the system is simply overwhelmed.

“At the start of this pandemic, there were 20 people answering the phones, and, at the height of it, we had 1.5 million call attempts in a single day,” he said.

Wright says call center staff now stands at more than 250 people answering phones. But they’re still logging up to 4,000 unique callers a day. Responding to complaints about long hold times, the agency set up the system so that if people will be on hold longer than 15 minutes, they will hear a message the lines are full, and they should call back.

Wright says their call tracking data shows 80 percent of people who are calling are able to get through in the first two or three attempts. He acknowledged complaints disputing that assertion, but says the data does not support it.

Steve Hanson of Council Grove is one of those who says he has continued experiencing long hold times and trouble getting an answer.

“I might call 40, 50, 60 times during the day to get through,” he said. “I have never experienced anything with this kind of delay.”

Hanson started calling when the benefits he received for months stopped without warning October 3rd. This week, he finally got through to speak with someone.

“They told me that I’d been flagged for some sort of fraud,” he said, adding he never received notification of an issue. “All I know is I’ve been in the system, I self-certified every week, and nothing’s changed.

Wright could not comment on Hanson’s specific situation, but said it’s possible a legitimate claim is getting caught up in efforts to fight unprecedented levels of fraud. He said the agency is stopping 2,300 fraud claims a day - 157,000 so far.

“This is nationally costing taxpayers between $8 and $26 billion in fraudulent claims, so we owe it to taxpayers to make sure when we’re paying out claims, we’re paying out valid claims,” he said.

But it’s those people with valid claims for whom patience is growing thin.

“It’s really difficult,” Holmes said. “Our bills are racking up. My husband works, but it’s not enough to pay for everything.”

Some are concerned the clock is ticking, with many of these programs set to expire later this month. Wright offered reassurance.

“If you are owed a dollar from this agency, and your claim is valid, you will be paid that money, even after these programs end,” he said.

The question for those waiting is when that payment will come.

“I hope the state responds by recognizing the problems and finding personnel to fix it so they can communicate,” Hanson said.

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