TOPEKA, Kan. — An antiquated system, exponential increases of unemployment claims and fraudulent activity are problems that have plagued the Kansas Department of Labor (KDOL) over the past year.
At the same time, Kansans struggled to stay afloat as they spent hours trying to apply for unemployment benefits.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, many Kansans were either denied benefits or couldn't access the website that often went dark due to the amount of activity. For those who did get benefits, many reported the payments came too late, after the mortgage and rent were due.
Last March, roughly 2,000 to 3,000 people filed a claim with KDOL. In March 2021, that number sits at around 20,000, according to Brett Flachsbarth, deputy secretary for KDOL.
"The switch on this flipped over night," Flachsbarth said. "We went from a very historically low-claim environment, to a historically high-claim environment."
For the past year, Flachsbarth said, the staff members have worked daily to resolve issues with unemployment claims. New financial assistance programs have been implemented, and several new employees have been hired.
In April, 41 Action News spoke to Mercedez Wilson who lives in Ozawkie. Wilson said, despite placing calls to KDOL on a daily basis, she could never reach a call center representative.
"One day I had called unemployment over 500 times," Wilson said. "I'm at a loss – I just don't even know what to do."
The stories 41 Action News heard at the beginning of the pandemic still are prevalent today.
"I spent probably a couple hours on Saturday calling," Keeli Walker said, "and I called about 130 times maybe and still couldn't get ahold of anybody."
When the pandemic began, KDOL had just 50 call center representatives. That number has increased to 450, according to Flachsbarth.
Training staff, which usually takes six to 12 months, happened within weeks. Call center employees, who usually work in a shared space, moved to individual home offices.
"The logistical challenges were significant," Flachsbarth said.
System upgrades and new programs to provide assistance also were created overnight.
"We had to create out of thin air the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program that had never existed," Flachsbarth said. "It's been one challenge after another over the course of a year."
Each time a new program is implemented, Kansans report a delay in their unemployment payments. Glitches and kinks are still being worked out.
Flachsbarth said historic levels of fraud also pulled resources, adding to the delays.
"We have never seen a type of massive assault on the type of system through identity theft that we saw this year," Flachsbarth said.
KDOL is continuing the work to modernize its systems, but Flachsbarth said that could take up to six years.
"We know the next time we're in this position as a state we'll have the type of system we would all want to better be able to handle the work load," Flachsbarth said.
KDOL analytics, according to Flachsbarth, show call volumes are decreasing, which suggests the issues with claims are improving.
Flachsbarth said the backlogs should be resolved within the next few weeks.
In the meantime, there's little Kansans can do if they haven't received their benefits on time. Flachsbarth said to just keep calling.
KDOL can be reached in the Kansas City area at (913) 596-3500.