Kansas labor secretary resigns after slow rollout of pandemic unemployment benefits

Kansas Department of Labor Secretary Delía García resigned today over issues with management of the state's coronavirus unemployment response. Seen above, Delía García (left) speaks at an April news conference about the state’s unemployment programs in response to the coronavirus, as Gov. Laura Kelly watches. Photo credit Jim McLean/Kansas News Service.

By Jim McLean

TOPEKA, Kansas — The head of the agency that’s overseeing Kansas’ response to historic unemployment rates during the coronavirus pandemic resigned Monday.

Governor Laura Kelly said in a statement that Kansas Department of Labor Secretary Delía García “inherited an agency that had its funding, its technology and its staff gutted by the previous administration.”

She did not say whether García’s resignation was requested, but noted that more than 4,500 people received duplicate payments this month, worth $7 million total. The Department of Labor did not consult her before trying to reverse the mistake on June 18, and some people’s bank accounts were overdrawn.

“We have a responsibility to the people we represent to get it right,” Kelly said. “And when we don’t, we’ll make the changes needed to fix the problems.”

Kelly framed the move as part of “immediate action” to change the unemployment system, adding that she’ll bring in people to help “improve response times,” “implement new processes to manage the caseload” and “mitigate future backlogs and errors.”

García spent just over a year in the role as the head of the labor department, which was beset by issues when Kansas’ unemployment skyrocketed as the coronavirus shut down businesses.

More than 300,000 Kansans have lost their jobs and filed for benefits through the Department of Labor, which was understaffed and had to add four times more people to work in the call center. Plus, Kansas’ unemployment website and telephone portals weren’t designed to handle such a heavy load, so people were slow to see the money.

Senate President Susan Wagle said she was glad Kelly “finally recognized the Department of Labor is broken” and is “waiting expectantly to see what the next chapter” of the agency.

A new Kansas Department of Labor report said Kansas has regained about a fifth of the jobs lost in the initial unemployment spike.

García could not immediately be reached for comment. Before joining Kelly’s cabinet, the Democrat was the first Latina elected to the Kansas Legislature, where she was a member of the House for six years.

Ryan Wright, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, will lead the Labor Department while the state looks for a permanent replacement.

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.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

This is a breaking story and will be updated.