As problems continue to plague state’s unemployment system, Lawrence residents wait ‘in limbo’ for benefits
photo by: Ashley Golledge
The balance in Michael Dye’s bank account is $2.89, and the only people he thinks might be able to help him aren’t picking up the phone. As he looks around his house, his thoughts drift to what possessions he might be able to sell.
Dye, like others in Lawrence and across the state, is waiting on unemployment benefits from the Kansas Department of Labor. He said he’s qualified for the extended unemployment benefits funded through the recently approved federal coronavirus stimulus package, but on the last step of the online application he is told that there’s an error. The online form doesn’t say what the problem is or how to resolve it, and he has called the state unemployment office at least 100 times over the past month without getting through.
“So they’ve basically put us in this endless infinity loop of wait around and see,” Dye said. “But I’m not going to be able to do that if I don’t have a phone because I can’t pay for it.”
Dye was formerly the general manager of The Bottleneck, one of Lawrence’s iconic concert venues, and he was able to stay on staff for a few months through one of the initial coronavirus relief programs, the Paycheck Protection Program. Afterward, he was covered by unemployment until the beginning of January, but for the past month he has been waiting to receive benefits from the coronavirus stimulus package approved by Congress at the end of December. Dye is one of many whose accounts have been locked or who continue to wait in uncertainty on benefits they’re qualified to receive.
Behind the curtain is the Kansas Department of Labor’s approximately 40-year-old computer system, an unemployment office inundated with both legitimate and fraudulent claims, and not nearly enough staff available to help. The issues have affected both the pandemic-related relief programs as well as regular unemployment benefits. Department of Labor officials say they’ve hired hundreds of staff members since the pandemic began and are rolling out fixes to the system to help weed out thousands of suspected fraudulent claims. They are also urging people not to use automatic dialers, which are further burdening the system.
“I’m not blaming people, and I’m not making excuses for the agency,” Ryan Wright, special assistant to the secretary of labor, told the Journal-World. “We know it’s frustrating, and we are trying everything in our power to add additional bandwidth so that we can help.”
But meanwhile, many wait.
Lawrence resident Ronica Banks was able to hang onto her job as the project coordinator for a group home, Rising Phoenix Community Living, through the early days of the pandemic. But the entire business closed at the end of October because of financial losses, and Banks lost her job. She said she qualified for unemployment beginning Nov. 1 and began receiving payments, but her account was recently locked and she has not received any payments for two weeks.
Banks said she has been calling the unemployment office daily since then trying to remedy whatever is wrong.
“I’ve been doing it every day for two weeks,” Banks said. “In a day I probably call a good two to three hundred times. I have not been able to get through.”
Banks said she has not gotten any letter, email or phone call that explains why her account was locked or what she could do about it. She has been following news about the problems the unemployment office has been having, and out of fear that her account is locked because someone tried to file a fraudulent claim in her name she tried to submit documents to verify her identity. As advised, she also called her state representative and got on a callback list. As she waits for a resolution, the bills are coming due.
“If I can’t get through to talk to anybody, how do I clear this up?” Banks said. “… I have no letter, no nothing. We are just kind of left in limbo here.”
Others haven’t gotten any benefits. Lawrence resident Lonnie LuPardus had been running his custom shelving business, Barnwood Studio LFK, for only about eight months when the pandemic hit Kansas in March 2020. He said his business had been going pretty well, but the pandemic has negatively affected home visits with clients, and he applied for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides aid to self-employed, contract and gig workers, among others.
LuPardus said he has yet to receive any of the pandemic relief payments he believes his business is qualified for, even though he has both uploaded and mailed every form that was asked for. After a recent three-hour wait on hold, he said he spoke with someone, but they could only tell him that claims were delayed and could not say when he might receive benefits.
“They just said it’s backed up,” LuPardus said. “… There is no information that they can relay to you.”
photo by: Contributed photo
LuPardus said while he was not in dire need at the beginning of the pandemic, it’s getting to a point where he will have to start making some decisions. He said the lack of information and difficulties contacting the unemployment office are frustrating, and he can’t imagine what it’s like for people who have depleted their savings and have nowhere else to turn.
“I’ve made at least 30 calls where I’ve waited on hold for three to six hours,” LuPardus said. “I can’t imagine the people who are struggling and really need it now.”
Delays and other issues have plagued the Department of Labor since the pandemic began, and after Gov. Laura Kelly’s first labor secretary resigned in June, the department has been led by a succession of two acting secretaries. While efforts to address the problems are ongoing, Wright, special assistant to the labor secretary and former acting secretary, said the issues and the solutions were complex.
For those locked out of their accounts, Wright said the primary driver was fraud blocks put in place because someone has filed a fraudulent unemployment claim in that person’s name. He said the office was stopping 2,300 to 2,700 fraudulent claims per day but that some fraudsters have succeeded in “hijacking” legitimate claims and getting payments rerouted to their bank accounts.
To deal with the fraud, Wright said Kansas’ unemployment processing system would be shut down until Tuesday to add a new identity verification component to the login process. The component will use unique questions based on a person’s credit history to remove the fraud blocks, and multifactor logins will be required going forward. Wright said while the new verification system was not going to fix everything, it would allow the office to focus on helping people with legitimate claims.
“No matter how much we try and help people, if you’re trying to wade through all of those bad actors every day, good people get caught in that mix,” Wright said this past week. “After this component goes into place next week, and once people are verified, we really do think it will release a lot of the pressure on the system.”
Regarding issues getting through to the call line and into a hold queue, Wright explained that the unemployment office actually changed the system so it would function that way. He said that initially everyone who called could get into the hold queue, but because the unemployment office did not have the capacity to get to all those calls, some people would wait on hold all day just to be cut off when the office closed for the day. He said that now once capacity is reached, the system stops accepting new calls. Wright said he understood that not being able to get through was frustrating, but the office is continuing to add staff to expand capacity as much as possible.
Specifically, Wright said that because staffing levels were based on the unemployment rate the year before, the department started the pandemic with only around 20 phone operators. He said 450 more temporary or permanent staff members have since been added to answer phones and directly work with claimants. He said the office would need 1,500 staff members total to deal with the current demand, and while the department does not have the ability to add that many more people, it does continue to add more operators every week.
Wright said another part of the problem was that some people were using auto dialers, which call and hang up on a regular basis until they can get through. However, he said auto dialers could not navigate correctly through the system and were only contributing to the problem. The use of auto dialers has meant the unemployment office often has days when there are more than 200,000 call attempts from around 15,000 unique callers, according to information the department provided to the Journal-World.
Still, Wright noted that the office has been decreasing the numbers of unprocessed claims, going from approximately 25,000 regular unemployment claims at the end of June to approximately 25 this past week, meaning all other claims are either processed or have an issue identified. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program backlog was 25,000 applications as of Jan. 19, but there are now about 14,300 applicants moved forward into the determination process.
In addition to fraud, staffing and auto dialer issues, Wright noted that the department’s computer system for processing claims was first put in place in the 1970s and has not been properly attended to over the years. Kelly has proposed spending millions to upgrade the system, and on Friday she chose Amber Shultz to run the department of labor, as The Associated Press reported. Shultz is a Lawrence resident who has technology experience and most recently worked as general manager of the Municipal Services and Operations department for the city of Lawrence.
Apart from not using auto dialers, Wright also advised callers to try to avoid calling from 8 to 9 a.m., 1 to 2 p.m. and on Mondays, which are all high-volume times. He said that once callers succeed in getting in the hold queue, they should not hang up and call back, as that only starts their wait over again.
However, Wright emphasized again that he did not seek to shift blame or make excuses, and that he understood why people are frustrated. He said the department would continue to work though problems to make sure people get the benefits they are due.
For those waiting, solutions cannot come fast enough.
Banks, whose payments stopped after her account was blocked two weeks ago, became the guardian of her 18-month-old grandson after her daughter was killed in fall 2019, and she also has a 16-year-old son at home. She said at this point, with both kids at home and her teenage son doing remote learning, her availability for another job, if she were able to find one, was limited.
Banks said a charitable organization she recently reached out to for help requested documentation that her unemployment benefits had stopped, but she had nothing to show them. She said she’s paid her monthly bills, but does not have the money to pay her February rent.
“It’s a scary situation,” Banks said. “… I’m depending on unemployment to get me through until I can find another job.”
For his part, Dye said he has also had trouble finding a job, particularly one that pays a decent wage and does not require a high risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Though his bank account is empty, Dye emphasized his situation was not as dire as others’. He said he lives with his girlfriend, who is still working although not able to fully support both of them. Nonetheless, there are pressures. Dye, who is also a musician, said the rent and his car payment were due on Feb. 1, and his only backup plan was to sell his music equipment and other electronics.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Dye said. “It’s a very scary time.”
Dye, who initially spoke to the Journal-World earlier this past week, finally got a call back from the unemployment office on Thursday, and was told funding from the new coronavirus relief program would take “days or weeks” to implement. He said he still did not receive an explanation for why his application is locked, and he continues to have more questions than answers.