KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In addition to battling the health consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said during a press conference Tuesday in Topeka that her administration is working to manage “the economic fallout from this disease."
The Kansas Department of Labor, according to Kelly, saw a more than 3,200% increase in unemployment claims last week compared to the beginning of March as limits on public gathering and stay-at-home orders were phased in across the state.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the state, Kansas was handling an average of 1,800 unemployment claims per week and never more than 2,700 new claims in any week so far in 2020.
As recently as the week ending March 14, Kansas only had 1,820 new unemployment claims, but the number of new claims spiked to 23,925 for the week ending March 21 and 55,428 for the week ending March 28.
Kelly said the number of new unemployment claims for last week topped 60,000 on Sunday in “an unprecedented rise."
“Additionally, the Department of Labor is receiving over 230,000 calls every day,” Kelly said, noting that was the department’s highest-ever call volume.
On Monday alone, Kelly said, the state office that handles unemployment calls received more than 877,000 — the equivalent to the combined population of Lawrence, Topeka and Emporia.
Kelly said the Department of Labor has doubled the number of employees, extended employees’ hours, added more phone lines and started to move employees from other departments to help handle the influx of claims and calls.
Approximately 100 workers with the Department of Agriculture are being trained to help with unemployment claims, while the state’s IT department prepares computers for workers to use from home.
Kelly also signed Executive Order 20-17 to streamline the unemployment process in Kansas. It brings state statute in line with federal law with respect to certain aspects of unemployment insurance and also waives some requirements for job-seekers.
All employers in Kansas are required to provide employees with unemployment insurance benefits information upon termination of employment.
The waiting week for unemployment benefits has been waived along with the requirement for beneficiaries to actively seek work.
Waiving these requirements will “ensure the safety and protection that unemployment insurance is designed to provide at times like this,” Kelly said.
The order remains in place through at least May 1, or until the State of Disaster Emergency is rescinded, whichever is earlier.
Kelly also promised an extra $600 as Kansas draws upon federal unemployment insurance resources.
“If you are seeking unemployment benefits, the quickest way for you to get them is to file online at GetKansasBenefits.gov,” Kelly said.
For those who must call the Kansas Department of Labor, Kelly said the best practice is to remain on the line and remain patient as staffers try to handle the massive call volume.
Meanwhile, with unemployment claims rising exponentially, state revenue is taking a beating.
Extending the annual income tax deadline from April 15 to June 15 will have a major impact on state revenue and funding, Kelly said.
However, other tax revenue projections are less dire — at least for now.
“Sales tax, we really don’t know yet,” Kelly said. “In some ways, there have been a lot more commodities purchased, so we’ll see how that works out.”
Kelly praised the way residents in her state have, by and large, followed stay-at-home orders and social-distancing guidelines.
“One thing we have seen across Kansas is Kansans behaving themselves,” she said.
Kelly said the state would provide additional guidance to clarify guidelines for outdoor activities, religious activities and what businesses are essential in the coming days.
She also stressed that the measures remain necessary as Kansas rides out the COVID-19 peak, which isn’t expected to hit until mid- to late April, and that the statewide order supersedes any local orders.
“We know it works,” Kelly said. “We know it can be awkward at times, but it’s essential that people maintain that social distancing.”
Kelly said studies are already bearing out that states that are enacting stay-at-home orders sooner rather than later have managed to flatten the curve more than states that failed to act.
As for establishments that continue to operate in violation of the stay-at-home order, “If we find incidents where it’s blatant, there are ways police can go in ... so we have the capability of doing that if we need to do that,” Kelly said.
But so far, she doesn’t think it’s been necessary.
Finally, Kelly said she and her staff were going to discuss, and possibly make recommendations, about emergency storm planning.
Many communities have designated storm shelters in the event of severe weather, but packing those shelters right now would violate emergency orders related to COVID-19.
Kelly plans to provide a daily briefing at 2 p.m. and will be joined by Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Dr. Lee Norman on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during the pandemic.