KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The COVID-19 pandemic sparked thousands of calls, emails and cries for help to the Kansas Department of Labor.
“I was very frustrated because there was such a massive lack of communication on what we were supposed to do next," said Re'Nae Pherigo, president of The Humanity over Politics Foundation.
After weeks of unanswered questions, Pherigo organized a hunger strike outside the KDOL building.
“I’m going to go stand out there, and I want you to know that I’m starving on your front lawn until you bring somebody out here to talk to me because I can’t get ahold of you any other way," Pherigo said.
Since March 15, 2020, KDOL has paid out more than 4.3 million weekly claims totaling more than $2.9 billion between regular unemployment and the federal pandemic programs. Still, many people have gone unpaid.
“They can’t get through to the phone lines," Pherigo said, "and when we do get through, they say, 'Sorry, we can’t help you. You need to talk to this person." And what I like to call it is an endless loop of misery."
Navigating her own unemployment problems, Pherigo wanted to help others going through the same process. She founded the Humanity Over Politics Foundation in February and has since added 10 people to her team. They spend each day answering questions from hundreds of Kansans regarding unemployment.
“It’s just people that are at the end of the rope," Megan Duree, executive director of the Humanity Over Politics Foundation, said. "They’re like, 'I’ve done this. I’ve done this. I’ve done this. I don’t know what else to do. Do you have a phone number? Do you have any advice?'"
While the foundation cannot access claims, its staff provides support and information.
“A foundation like this could do so much for the state of Kansas and literally be the voice for the little people, that’s what it comes down to," Pherigo said.
KDOL recently announced plans to upgrade its 40-year-old computer system, but the finished product won't be ready until fall 2023.
The Humanity Over Politics Foundation is creating a nonprofit, allowing the group to answer questions but also provide financial support.
The foundation's board members are scattered across the state. To contact them, call (620) 440-8409, email HumanityOverPolitics@gmail.com, or join the Facebook group.
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