COVID-19 leads to skyrocketing unemployment filings in KS, U.S.

Photo courtesy MGN.

WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) -- Coronavirus' impact on the Kansas economy brings a sharp increase in unemployment claims and a flood of calls to the Kansas Department of Labor from people directly impacted by business closures and job losses.

The Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas reports 27,950 Kansans filing for unemployment in the week-long window from March 15 to March 22. Two weeks ago, the alliance reports, that number was just shy of 1,300.

With the influx of claims comes a high call volume, well beyond what the labor department can immediately answer. The department directs those needing to make unemployment claims at the Kansas Department of Labor website. There, you can find a step-by-step instructional video on how to file your claim.

The department says it wants its call center clear for people who don't have internet access or don't speak English.

A typical requirement for unemployment is that you must actively look for work. With COVID-19 limiting opportunities, the current situation is different when it comes to unemployment benefits, Kansas Department of Labor Director of Unemployment Insurance Laurel Searles says.

The situation for many currently out-of-work Kansans is temporary with jobs expected to resume when restrictions and orders to combat the spread of COVID-19 lift.

"We are looking at those eligibility requirements a little bit different," Searles says. "As long as you're talking all active steps necessary to remain employed with the employer and plan to go back to work with that employer, you are satisfying the work search requirement."

The department of labor says it expects to see a further spike coming out of Sedgwick County where a stay-at-home order began Wednesday. The labor department doesn't yet have Sedgwick County specific numbers, but says it won't be surprised to see claims surge in the Wichita area.

Kansas isn't unique in facing challenges associated with COVID-19. Across the country, last week's jobless claims spiked to more than 280,000, a jump of more than 70,000 from the week before.

In Kansas, Governor Laura Kelly has extended the length of time a person can draw unemployment from the state. Other good news from economists is that there are still jobs out there, many of which fall under the "essential" category of Sedgwick County's stay-at-home order.

"(With) regular retail, there's just a lot less buying and and consumption out there, but it's shifted to those basic needs and necessities," says Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.

One example, Hill says, is that the demand for food and groceries increases with more people staying at home.

"They're not high skills, but clearly that's one segment and they're going to change depending on how creative this business environment is in solving the problems that we're having now that we're staying home," he says.

Hill also says some jobs like construction, will remain in demand. And other opportunities may be created to fill a void in the market not yet known

"Although I don't know exactly where they are at, it's very clear that we're going to have a lot more demand for some that support sector-related jobs," Hill says.

The number of unemployment claims made this week won't come out until next Tuesday (March 31). Wednesday (March 25), the Kansas Department of Labor announced it's no longer answer individual questions and asks anyone filing a claim to do so online.