Kansas unemployment hotline had more than 200K calls in one day; state leaders urging online use

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas Labor Secretary Delía García watches during a news conference, Friday, March 20, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Kansas’ unemployment hotline had a staggering 233,000 phone calls during a nine-hour shift on Thursday, Kansas Secretary of Labor Delía García told me today.

“Well, we had 233,000 attempted calls,” she said. “Not all of them got through.”

For those who did get through, wait times were several hours, in some instances. That’s why Kansas Department of Labor officials — the state agency that oversees the unemployment benefits program — are pleading with Kansans to use the state’s online portal if at all possible to access information about filing for unemployment.

That portal is at getkansasbenefits.gov. The website will allow people to make an initial claim for unemployment benefits and also to file their required weekly reports while on unemployment. The site also has information on frequently asked questions about who is eligible for unemployment and how to get signed up. I’m working on a larger article that goes over lots of that information, and it should be published this weekend.

In the meantime, know that record numbers of people are trying to access the system. The Department of Labor has brought in employees — some that previously were ordered to stay home during the COVID-19 shutdown — to try to deal with the surge.

“We wish we could be more responsive, but we went from staff for a historically low unemployment period (well over a year) to the highest call volumes ever seen (including the height of the recession) basically overnight,” Julie Menghini, communications and legislative director for the labor department, said in an email sent to state legislators.

“This is a constantly evolving crisis, and we are continuously updating our website and social media with new information and guidance as we receive it,” Menghini wrote. “Please check our website and social media for updates. We appreciate your continued patience with KDOL as we work to provide the best service possible during these trying times.”

The email said the department has doubled the number of customer service representatives answering the phones each day and also has brought in additional staff to reply to username and password issues for online users.

García told me they are hoping everyone who has access to the internet will use the online portal, which will free up the phone lines for those people who don’t have internet access or have other special needs that can’t be easily accommodated online.

But people who do call the hotline will need to be patient.

“Don’t hang up and call back,” Menghini said in the email to legislators, which included advice for lawmakers to give to constituents. “If you call, be prepared to wait it out. Plug in phone, put on speakerphone and go about your business until someone can address your call. Hang ups and dial backs are exacerbating the call volume issue.”

The labor department released its numbers for new unemployment cases for the week of March 21, and they showed the largest jump in Kansas’ history, at least since the beginning of the unemployment insurance program.

The state had 23,925 initial claims for the week — meaning new people filing to join the unemployment program. That was up from 1,820 new claims last week.

Restaurant workers, by far, were the largest group of folks seeking unemployment for the week. State numbers show that 7,127 people seeking unemployment for the week were from the accommodation and food service industry.

Other large industries producing unemployment claims were:

• Manufacturing: 3,506

• Health care and social assistance: 2,910

• Transportation and warehousing: 1,253

• Retail trade: 1,240

• Other services: 1,004

• Arts, entertainment and recreation: 932

• Construction: 866

The state’s report, though, shows Kansas has about $1 billion in its unemployment insurance fund. The state had $984.8 million in the fund, which is up from $812.7 million in March of 2019.

Prior to this surge, Kansas had been paying out about $3.1 million in benefits per week to those receiving unemployment assistance. The average payment has been $398 per week.

García said her office was keeping a close eye on both the amount of money going out of the fund and the amount coming in through the taxes paid by businesses. If more businesses in the state close, that could reduce the amount of unemployment tax revenue coming into the fund.

“We are going into this on a good foot, though,” García said. “We have about a billion dollars, and that is better than some states. We are keeping an eye on the fund, and also whatever the stimulus package may provide.”

I talked with García just before final approval of the federal stimulus bill. She was uncertain whether the package — dubbed phase III by legislators — would provide direct funds to replenish the state’s fund, but she thinks such help will come.

“I think that is possible maybe with a fourth or a fifth package,” she said. “I don’t think they are done yet.”

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