Kansas unemployment officials say they are now starting to process extra $600 payments called for in federal bill

photo by: Screenshot/Journal-World Illustration

The Kansas Department of Labor's unemployment benefits website at getkansasbenefits.gov is pictured through a desaturated filter Monday, April 6, 2020.

Officials with Kansas’ unemployment program are now working on adding an extra $600 per week to unemployment checks of Kansas residents, after previously having waited to start the process until they heard more from federal officials.

When Kansas residents, though, will start seeing the larger unemployment checks is still unclear. In a video posted to its Facebook page Monday, the Kansas Department of Labor simply said “we hope we can get that to you as quickly as possible.”

But Laurel Klein Searles, director of unemployment insurance for the Kansas Department of Labor, said teams were working on the project in ways they weren’t last week.

“All of last week we were saying we were waiting on guidance, we were waiting on guidance, we were waiting on guidance,” Searles said. “The good news is that guidance came in over the weekend.”

In an interview with the Journal-World late Monday afternoon, labor department officials clarified that the $600 payment will be going to basically everyone who qualifies for regular unemployment insurance. State officials stressed that people who already are on unemployment won’t have to fill out any additional paperwork to receive the $600 weekly benefit, which was approved as part of the federal government’s CARES Act.

National media organizations also have been reporting on the new guidelines issued over the weekend. The National Law Review reported the $600 payment is designed to cover periods of unemployment from April 3 to July 31, 2020.

The $600 payment will more than double what Kansas residents can receive in unemployment benefits. Prior to the COVID pandemic, the state had a cap of $488 per week for any one person for unemployment benefits. Now the cap will go to $1,088.

The federal guidance issued over the weekend also included information about a federal provision that will allow small business owners, independent contractors, freelancers, Uber drivers and others to qualify for unemployment benefits, when in the past most states have denied benefits to such workers.

Searles said the guidance from the federal government on those issues would take more time for the state to work through. She offered no estimate on when Kansas may begin providing benefits to those workers.

“That is a pretty massive program,” Searles said on the video. “Completely new program that has never existed before. It will take some time to get that program in place.”

Kansas labor department officials said those workers also will be eligible for the $600 federal benefit. However, those independent workers will have to prove that they are not otherwise eligible for unemployment benefits. That means independent workers should apply now. They may receive a denial notice, but that denial notice can be used in the future to qualify for the special program. People can apply for benefits at getkansasbenefits.gov.

The National Law Review article said those workers also would be eligible for the $600 federal benefit; however, the article does note that such workers will have to show that their job loss is directly tied to a COVID-19 event.

In other issues, the Kansas Department of Labor said it continued to face serious technical issues with its websites and phone lines, which are being inundated by people seeking to file unemployment claims.

Searles said that Sunday was a particularly bad day for the website.

“While the website did not technically crash, it was running much slower and providing many errors to people who were accessing the system,” she said.

Efforts to fix a part of the website where users who have forgotten their user name or PIN also weren’t successful, she said. Searles said the state has now brought in an outside vendor to assist the labor department’s IT team with the issue.

Searles provided some advice for people needing to access the system. She recommended accessing the website before 8 a.m. or after 4:30 p.m., if possible, to avoid peak volume times. She also said Sundays were particularly tough times to access the system. Many people are filing their weekly claims reports on Sundays, which is the first day they can be filed for the week.

However, Searles said filing the weekly report on Monday would result in people getting their unemployment money at the same time as if it were filed on Sunday. She also said that if people don’t get their weekly report filed by Monday, they can still file anytime throughout the week, although that may produce a delay of a few days in getting payment.

“I know these issues we are having with technology are incredibly frustrating,” Searles said, “and we will do our best to work through them to provide better service to you.”

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