Technology problems, delays in filing for Kansas unemployment get much worse; website essentially down
photo by: Screenshot/Kansas Department of Labor
Updated at 5:45 p.m. Monday
Kansans seeking to file unemployment claims are now facing even larger hurdles as the state’s website became all but inoperable over the weekend.
On Monday morning, a leader with the Kansas Department of Labor — which oversees the unemployment system — was urging people to call the department rather than use the website. That is the opposite of what labor department leaders previously had been recommending.
However, the department also was warning people that their calls may not get answered today.
“With the IT limitations, we do know that it is going to be difficult today,” Laurel Klein Searles, unemployment insurance director, said Monday during an online video briefing.
Searles said the website — getkansasbenefits.gov — began experiencing “extreme technical difficulties” on Sunday, which is the first day Kansans can file their unemployment reports for the previous week. The system has never recovered. Early on Monday, the department said the website was still technically functioning.
“At this point, IT advises me we are running but running slowly,” she said. “However, personally, I can’t even access our website at this time.”
By late Monday afternoon, however, the website was displaying a message that said it was offline and receiving maintenance.
Searles said the best chance for people to file their weekly claims report or to make their initial claim to become eligible for unemployment benefits is to call the state’s unemployment hotline. The hotline number for the Topeka area is 785-575-1460, and the toll-free number is 800-292-6333.
Searles said the department has added staff from the Kansas Department of Agriculture and the Kansas Department of Commerce to answer phone calls. The phone lines are now staffed by more than 100 people, up from about 20 before the pandemic began.
“You do have a higher chance of getting through to an agent than you did a week ago,” Searles said.
But even before the technical problems worsened this weekend, the department was advising callers that phone lines filled up very quickly. For instance, on Friday, the department was advising that people should start calling at 8 a.m. and that by 10:30 a.m. they expected their phones lines to be “full for the day.”
Gov. Laura Kelly said last week that the unemployment line received 1.6 million calls on a single day recently. More than 100,000 people have filed new claims for unemployment in the last two weeks, according to state figures. For perspective, the state often had less than 1,500 new claims per week prior to the pandemic.
Searles said agents taking calls do have forms that they can manually complete for the unemployment recipient over the phone. That brings up a question that I know some of you have on your mind: Is the state considering making paper forms available to people so they can simply mail them back to the Department of Labor while these technology issues get resolved?
When I asked the department that question, a spokeswoman said leaders were “continuing to evaluate all options as we work to resolve the IT issues.” Seemingly, a move to paper would create another set of delays while paper forms are manually processed. However, it is becoming less certain all the time when the state will get the unemployment computer system functioning properly. The department has been dealing with the computer problems since mid-March, when unemployment claims hit historic levels due to the pandemic. The state has said the mainframe system dates back to the 1970s.
“We have an old and complicated system that has an enormous amount of strain on it right now,” Searles said.
She said the department’s IT division was working “around the clock” on the issue. On Monday morning, the IT team was working with outside vendors on the problems.
She did remind filers that they have all week to make their unemployment claims and still get paid. People who file after Monday, though, will receive their payments one day later than normal.
Searles didn’t provide any updates on other big questions that unemployment filers have been asking. Those include when the $600 weekly payment that Congress has approved will start showing up on checks, and when self-employed and independent contractors can start being approved for unemployment benefits, which is another provision approved by Congress.
Searles on Monday limited her comments to the technology issues, because she said those were clearly the most pressing.
“None of us can really do much of anything without the website up and running,” she said.
The department’s Facebook page is inundated with commenters both furious and frustrated over the delays, plus many individuals expressing their worry that they may have to go a full month or more without any income due to the technical problems that have stopped them from filing an unemployment claim.
Searles again asked Kansans for their patience.
“I thank you all for your patience and understanding in this difficult situation,” Searles said. “I understand it may sound like we are making excuses. We aren’t trying to make excuses. We are trying to let you know what is going on.”