By Jim McLean
TOPEKA, Kansas — A month into the economic fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak, one thing is clear: The Kansas Department of Labor found itself unprepared for a record number of jobless claims filed by people suddenly tossed out of work.
“It’s completely unprecedented,” said Brett Flachsbarth, deputy secretary and a 15-year veteran of the agency.
Since March 14, more than 160,000 Kansans have filed first-time claims for unemployment benefits. That is a 2,457% increase over the previous month.
The explosion in claims crashed the agency’s website and overloaded its phone lines, often with hundreds of thousands of calls in a single day.
Some people say they called hundreds of times before getting through to someone in the department’s call center. Even when they got through, calls often ended in frustration.
After failing to reach anyone for two weeks, Sarah Abdel finally got through only to have her call immediately redirected to a “claims specialist.”
“Then that person transferred me to another department that just hung up on me,” Abdel said.
After mustering out of the Navy last fall, Abel returned to Kansas to go to school. But she also took a full-time job at a small cosmetics retailer in the Kansas City area. She was laid off three weeks ago.
Because of an issue with her military pay, Abdel said she can’t use the agency’s website to file a claim.
Like tens of thousands of other Kansas struggling to get unemployment benefits, Abdel sometimes tunes in to the agency’s Facebook Live updates at 9 a.m. weekdays, where officials attempt to explain the technical difficulties they’re having while pleading for patience.
“To me, they’ve had time to fix it and I don’t really see any results,” she said. “I just keep hearing excuses.”
Josie Layne tells a similar story. She was in line for a promotion at Savers, an Olathe thrift store, before she got laid off.
She’s been trying for weeks to get through on the phone to file a claim. Every now and then, someone answers and quickly transfers her to a phone that just rings and rings.
“For 30 minutes then hangs up,” Layne said. “That’s happened to me like 10 times.”
So while trying to file online last weekend, Layne said the agency’s website crashed. She checked back the next day but it was still down.
“It doesn’t even pull up,” Layne said. “It just says ‘unavailable’ or something like that.”
The department has quadrupled its call center staff and worked its information technology staff around the clock in a futile attempt to keep pace with the claims and keep the website functioning, Flachsbarth said.
The old mainframe computer that the department uses wasn’t built to handle the volume of claims now pouring in, he said. It dates back to the mid-1970s and uses a program developed in the 1950s.
Because labor departments across the country use the same system, he said, states have known for a long time that they need to modernize their technology.
But money has been a problem. Most of the Kansas Department of Labor’s funding comes from the federal government. It gets more when unemployment rates are high and less when they’re low.
Kansas has had an unemployment rate below 4% since 2017. So, from a budget and staffing standpoint, the agency was unprepared to handle the sudden spike in claims triggered by the coronavirus shutdown.
Even so, Flachsbarth said, it was finally moving to replace its aging computer system.
“We have been engaged for the last year in trying to take necessary steps forward to modernize our system,” he said.
Agency officials had made site visits to states that had overhauled their systems and “doing game-planning for what our options were,” he said, “when this (the coronavirus) hit.”
Now, Flachsbarth said, “everything … is focused on how we can provide the most service to the most people.”
So far, he said, that hasn’t been enough. In addition to problems handling claims for state benefits, the agency hasn’t been able to make the changes needed to get an additional $600 a week in federal benefits out the door to Kansans who qualify for them.
And the agency is weeks away from making the administrative changes necessary to implement federal rule changes that make self-employed people and those who work in the “gig economy” — think Uber drivers and the like — eligible for benefits.
Flachsbarth knows that Kansans who desperately need unemployment benefits but can’t get them are frustrated and angry. But he said the agency is “doing everything possible to assist them.”
“That being said,” Flacshbarth added, “there has to be an awareness on our part that doesn’t give them (Kansans) the resources they need to pay rent, buy groceries (and) meet those essential needs.”
Meanwhile, the beleaguered agency has also become a political football.
Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and U.S. Senate candidate, has criticized Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly for failing to fix the problems holding up benefits for out-of-work Kansans.
“This failure has been brewing since the pandemic began and Kansans have run out of patience,” Wagle said.
Kelly defended the agency, comparing the work that needs to be done to get things running smoothly to “fixing a plane in the air.”
In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, the governor said the agency now has 150 people answering phones about jobless calls and 30 people working on the website and the underlying “antiquated” computer system.
The dated computer infrastructure, Kelly said, was the result of foot-dragging in Kansas and across the country over decades.
“We should have invested a lot earlier,” she said.
Kelly said now the state is gradually improving the processing of unemployment claims and the checks that follow.
“The work,” she said, “is paying off.”
Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org.
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