Appeals backlog leave Kansas unemployed waiting

? The number of Kansans waiting to see if they qualify for unemployment benefits is up considerably from last year, according to a report from the Legislative Research Department.

More than 6,500 Kansans have been waiting to see if they qualify for unemployment benefits, which is more than twice the number of people who were waiting three months ago and four times the level in 2010, The Wichita Eagle reported.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, requested the report on the backlog and said the problem is that the state Labor Department laid off too many judges who heard appeals.

“Why do we have 5,000 more cases (on the backlog) than we did a year ago? Because they laid off the people who were making the decisions,” Ward said. “The question is, ‘Why?’ They basically don’t have an answer for that.”

State Labor Department officials said changes instituted since Gov. Sam Brownback took office will create a more efficient system, and that they’re re-staffing the appeals department to nearly pre-layoff levels.

“We’re doing everything we can to cut that time down, but yeah, it’s too long . There isn’t a person here who doesn’t think that’s too long,” said Kathie Sparks, deputy secretary of labor.

Brownback also said he’s not satisfied with the waits for appeals and blamed the problem on his predecessors.

“Unfortunately, the prior administration had spent most of the federal money that runs the Department of Labor — most of it is a federally funded agency,” he said. “It’s very little state funding. We had a big reduction in workforce because we had no money — the federal funds to fund it. So then you have these sort of things that start up.”

The Department of Labor started the year with at least 16 appeals judges, stationed around the state. But layoffs in June and subsequent retirements brought the number down to six. The layoffs were part of a reorganization of the department to concentrate its appeals staff in Topeka.

Although the people hearing appeals had had the working title of judge, state law calls for referees, and the job title was changed to reflect that, said Brett Flachsbarth, the chief of the appeals division. But the job qualifications also changed. Unlike the former appeals judges, the referees are not required to be attorneys.

The department is filling the positions by promoting lower-level, non-attorney employees whose job is to make the initial determination whether a worker is eligible for benefits.

Sparks said the department has 11 judges, or referees, and is hiring three more. When the new referees take office in January, the department will be only two positions short of where it was at the beginning of the year. The department is rolling out a new computerized system and made significant upgrades last week, she said.