Kansans plan unemployment march as lawmakers push for oversight council

Unemployment marches Kansas
Posted at 5:58 PM, Feb 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 18:58:26-05

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas lawmakers are pushing for more control over changes to the Department of Labor's unemployment system.

This week, lawmakers in the state House and Senate are hearing testimony on several bills.

House Bill 2196 and Senate Bill 177 are mirror bills with identical language that would establish an unemployment compensation modernization and improvement council, as well as other changes to the Department of Labor. The council would oversee modernization upgrades and make recommendations on changes to the unemployment system.

The bills read:

"The council shall also examine the process by which an individual files a claim for and receives benefits and any changes made to that process after the effective."

The council would be made up of 11 members, which would include lawmakers in the state House and Senate, representatives of employees and employers, and the secretary of labor or a designee of the secretary who has administrative responsibilities.

Olathe Republican and Senate Commerce Committee Chair Rob Olson has said he wants the oversight and management of the Department of Labor to be non-political and by an independent board rather than a secretary appointed by the governor.

Olson and committee members heard testimony earlier this week from Keeli Walker about her struggles to receive payments and get communication from the department.

"I spent probably a couple hours on a Saturday calling, and I called about 130 times maybe and still couldn't get ahold of anybody," Walker said during a virtual hearing Wednesday. "It's just been a really frustrating experience."

Lawmakers also heard from Eric Stafford, vice president of government affairs for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, in support of the bills.

Stafford explained the modernization in 2004 of the unemployment system focused largely on the claimant side and left employers struggling.

"Employers are still giving reports back on paper. We have no ability to real-time investigate claims under an employer's account; it's all handled through the mail and fax," Stafford said.

A hearing on Thursday continued with testimony from Deputy Labor Secretary Peter Brady. Brady began by stating the department wants to work with legislators to find solutions. He said KDOL supports some components of the bill, is neutral about some, and has concerns over others.

While KDOL is neutral about the creation of the the Unemployment Compensation and Improvement Council, Brady said the agency does have several concerns, including about the technical requirements laid out in the bill.

"We do not think it would be prudent to one, tie the state in statute to specific technological requirements and two, we do see a potential security concern with putting the requirements for our new system out in a public space such as the statute," Brady said.

A spokesperson for Olson said there will be no committee vote on SB 177 Friday and the senator is encouraging both parties to come to a common ground this weekend. He is committed to getting the bill to the Senate floor next week.

Meanwhile, Kansans are taking matters into their own hands. Cassandra Dickerson said she's organizing several peaceful marches and rallies at the state Capitol building starting Friday.

"They need to hear us a different way and the only way they're going to do that is if we show up at the Capitol and make them hear us," Dickerson said.

Dickerson said she's waiting on seven weeks of payments currently, but she knows others are worse off. She wants to see a third-party investigation and frequent briefings on the issue from Gov. Laura Kelly.

41 Action News reached out to Kelly's office about the legislation and a spokesperson sent this statement:

"We are still reviewing the legislation; however, Governor Kelly will not support any bill that creates more bureaucratic red tape that will slow down the Department of Labor’s efforts to modernize their 40-year-old IT system."