Capitol Update: Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin says Kansas Legislature must improve unemployment claims process

"Accessing the safety net, when it’s working, can be stressful and demoralizing. I know, because I had to use it when I was a single mom," said Democratic State Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin, while discussing the need to improve Kansas' unemployment claims process in her Capitol Update column. Above, Poskin at the Post's 2020 candidate forum. Photo credit Denise Elam.

Each week, we provide Shawnee Mission area legislators the opportunity to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol. Rep. Brandon Woodard, Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin and Sen. Pat Pettey are scheduled to send updates this week.

Below is the submission from Democratic State Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin who represents District 20.

Kansans who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic are hurting. I know, because I am hearing from hundreds of them and am doing my best to assist them.

Their stories are all different and compelling, but have one thing in common: the safety net is failing them when they need it most.

They are angry, scared and losing hope that they can hold on to what they have worked towards for years. They worry about how they will feed their children, pay their bills and get life-saving prescriptions filled.

Accessing the safety net, when it’s working, can be stressful and demoralizing. I know, because I had to use it when I was a single mom.

For those who have lost their jobs, through no fault of their own, claiming their unemployment benefits has devolved into a nightmare of error screens and circular instructions that lead to the dreaded “Please reach out to the call center at 785-575-1460. There is an issue with your weekly claim, this week will not be paid until resolved with a claims representative” screen. Getting a hold of claims representative, and then one who can actually help you, seems as likely as winning the lottery.

What is going on and how did this happen? For years, the legislature has had opportunities to upgrade the ancient (40+ years) IT system at the Kansas Department of Labor (KDOL), but the safety net was not prioritized. An upgrade to the system was halted in 2011, leaving it a hybrid mess.

Compound that with a quadrupling of legitimate claims in just one month from March 2020 to April 2020 and add a layer of millions of fraudulent hits. Then, add new and complex federal programs.

It’s like asking a 90’s Motorola flip phone to live stream the Super Bowl and mine some crypto currency on the side. And that flip phone is almost 20 years newer than KDOL’s IT system.

In March 2020, KDOL’s call center was staffed with 21 people. This has grown to 450, though the call volume would require 1500 agents to handle.

We got here because of legislators who have a disdain for the safety net and those who need it. As we speak, the Kansas Senate has passed SB 22, totaling over a billion dollars in tax cuts, rekindling the failed Brownback tax experiment.

The KS House is considering a bill that, according to this Associated Press report has “sparked a backlash amid the economic uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, and Democrats see it as hurting struggling workers at exactly the wrong time.” The report goes on to say that “a key Republican lawmaker conceded Friday that it will be difficult to include the measure in broader legislation designed to overhaul the state’s troubled unemployment system.”

Kansans can reach out to their state legislators for KDOL assistance and may want to ask where they stand on these bills, as well.