Kansas unemployment modernization bill aims to improve department

Bill offers short and long term solutions
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Posted at 8:33 PM, Apr 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-28 21:32:59-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A bill now signed into law by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly aims to modernize the state's legacy unemployment information technology system, as well as address other issues dealing with unemployment.

Kansas lawmakers have been working on bill 2196 since February.

The bill creates an oversight council made up of lawmakers in the House and Senate, representatives of employers and employees and the Secretary of Labor.

The council would oversee modernization upgrades and make recommendations on changes to the unemployment system.

In April, the agency issued its Request for Proposal (RFP) for modernizing the computer system. In the RFP, the Kansas Department of Labor stated a date of Fall 2023. It is now focusing on vendor selection and moving through the contract stage.

While an entire overhaul of the system will take two to three years, bill 2196 includes several provisions that Secretary Amber Shultz said will help improve things for claimants in the short-term.

These include:

  • Keeping Regular Unemployment Insurance Benefits at 26 weeks through Sept. 5
  • Increasing the number of claimants connected to employment services at the Department of Commerce
  • Ensuring employers are held harmless for fraudulently filed claims
  • Expanding the department’s capacity to address claimant appeals

The bill also allows people who have had claims fraudulently filed in their name to report it through their local sheriff's office. Olson said it's just one more avenue people can take if they are having a hard time getting through to someone at the agency.

Donata Ball tells 41 Action News getting through to someone on the call center continues to be her biggest frustration.

"You call and all representatives are busy and the call queue is full, call back," Ball said. "I’ve done that hundreds of times and I still can’t get through."

Shultz said the department hears those concerns. The agency conducted a server upgrade in March, which allowed it to bring on more customer service representatives. The on-boarding process for those workers is currently happening.

"Between the beginning of April and mid-May, we'll have added another 500 customer service representatives to take those calls," Shultz said.

Bill 2196 will keep regular, state unemployment benefits at 26 weeks until Sept. 5. At that time, they will be reduced to 16 weeks if the state unemployment rate is below 4.5%.

State Senator Robert Olson, (R) District 23, said that threshold falls in line with the national unemployment rate.

During discussions about the bill, Olson said some lawmakers wanted to lower the weeks starting in April. However, he said it makes the most sense to wait until Sept. when other Federal programs are ending as well.

Olson said it also made sense to wait to do that so the department could focus on the matter at hand.

"They would’ve had to manually go in there and remove the state portion and left federal, which would’ve been quite a bit of work and I want their focus on the back payments," Olson said.

Shultz said she agrees waiting to reduce the payments ultimately helps Kansans waiting on payments.

"It's a tremendous amount of help with that piece of the legislation because again we would have to go in and do mainframe programming," Shultz said.

While Shultz and lawmakers agree the legislation is a big step in the right direction, Ball wants to know when she'll see change.

"It’s frustrating, I mean it adds to the depression of being unemployed, it adds on top of it because you’re wondering how am I going to keep my bills paid," Ball said.