Kansas officials stress ‘help is on its way’ for beleaguered unemployment system, benefit seekers

photo by: Screenshot/Kansas Office of the Governor

Kansas Department of Labor Secretary Delia Garcia speaks at a press conference on Thursday, April 16, 2020.

Story updated at 3:28 p.m. Thursday

State officials said Thursday that they are working around-the-clock to upgrade Kansas’ decades-old unemployment system and allow more Kansans to apply for unemployment benefits.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began and many businesses closed under stay-at-home orders, Kansas has been inundated with claims seeking unemployment insurance, overwhelming the Department of Labor’s computer system that it has used since 1977.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and two high-ranking administration members spent much of a daily briefing Thursday speaking about the situation.

In the last four weeks, Kelly said, some 160,000 Kansans have filed initial claims for unemployment, and the labor department has received as many as 1.6 million calls seeking assistance in a single day.

“There is no sugarcoating it. The system has been overloaded, and delays have created frustration and anxiety for Kansans,” Kelly said. “We’re doing everything we possibly can to boost capacity of the system so it works faster.”

Kelly, Secretary of Labor Delía García and Secretary of Administration DeAngela Burns-Wallace announced new measures Thursday to increase the department’s capacity to process claims. All said they hoped that federal stimulus dollars could be put to use in the coming days to further assist the dated system.

García said the labor department has increased its staffing from 20 to 150 team members, utilized an information technology “SWAT team” to increase the online system’s capacity and implemented a triage call center to process four to five times more calls than normal.

Starting Thursday, García said, the department would also begin asking people to file unemployment claims by the first letter of their last name, as some states around the country are doing to help regulate the flood of benefit requests.

According to the department’s new guidance, those with last names beginning with letters A through M should file Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday. Those with last names beginning with letters N through Z should file Monday, Wednesday or Friday. The department encouraged those who miss their filing day to file on Saturday, and it reminded residents that claims filed on Sunday and Monday will be paid at the same time.

García said the labor department would be hiring several dozen more staffers in the coming weeks and training them in smaller groups to maintain social distancing requirements. The process to train employees will be accelerated from 6 months to 3 weeks because of the demand for services, she said.

“There is a light at the end of this tunnel, and we are moving toward it,” García said. “Help is on its way.”

Kansas on Thursday confirmed 94 more cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to 1,588. The state also confirmed four more deaths, bringing the statewide total to 80.

The increase in cases came as the state processed many more tests than it normally does in a day. From Wednesday to Thursday, the state processed 1,454 virus test results between the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s lab and tests processed by private labs. That number is up from the normal 700 to 800 results processed in a day. State officials have said for weeks that they need to increase testing capacity to better gauge the impact of the virus in Kansas.

KDHE also announced Thursday that there are 359 COVID-19 related hospitalizations out of 1,288 cases where data is available. The hospitalization percentage of 27.8% has been mostly consistent for the past two weeks.

Kelly said Thursday that while she understands and shares the desires of Kansans to reopen the state’s economy as soon as possible and get folks back to work, the state doesn’t yet have the capacity to do so until it reaches the peak of the outbreak — which is expected to come between April 19 and 29.

“I share all Kansans’ worry and angst about an extended shutdown,” she said. “But we do not yet have the supplies we need to reopen, nor have we reached the apex of this outbreak.”


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