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Kansas ‘on target’ to resume expanded unemployment payments, top official says

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas was "on track" in resuming expanded unemployment benefits, a top Department of Labor official said Thursday. (November file photo/The Capital-Journal)

A top Kansas Department of Labor official said Thursday the state was "on track" in its work to begin paying out expanded unemployment benefits, which were reauthorized under a federal stimulus bill passed late last year. 

Roughly two dozen states have begun paying out an extra $300 a week to eligible claimants via the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.

Originally authorized under the CARES Act, the program was continued under a federal stimulus package approved in December, with claimants able to receive the expanded benefits for an additional 11 weeks. 

Kansas isn't one of the states that has restarted the expanded payments as of yet.

Ryan Wright, who stepped down as acting secretary of the agency in December but remains a top staffer at KDOL, said the department was in the process of testing the requisite system and that Kansas is "not behind," noting that neighboring states were also not yet up and running either.

He didn't commit to a firm time frame but said "we are talking days and weeks, not months."

"I think there is some misinformation out in social media land, which is not unusual," Wright told The Topeka Capital-Journal. "But we are not behind, we are on target."

KDOL has come under fire from lawmakers and frustrated Kansans alike amid a historic surge in unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Wright took over as acting secretary in July, there was a backlog of over 25,000 claimants awaiting benefits. Residents complained of an inability to get through to talk to a call center employee about their situation and some still say they haven't been able to access their benefits.

Many residents still flood social media groups designed to provide support and answers for frustrated residents who are out of work. One Wichita man, Jon Bilson, turned his quest for benefits into a solitary protest outside the KDOL headquarters last month.

"I know I'm just one of so many people, of thousands of people," Bilson said.

But Wright claimed victory in tackling the backlog of regular unemployment claims, which was down to a mere 188 applicants who would be taken care of soon. 

"We are approaching the point where if you have a valid claim, you will be paid," he said.

A separate backlog of claimants in a different program targeted at those who are self-employed or freelancers had been halved in the last six months, Wright said.

The agency is also moving forward in what officials believe to be a much-needed modernization of its backend system, which KDOL has blamed in large part for its struggles during the pandemic.

Aging systems led to more crashes and outages, officials said, with the agency having to divert resources to correct the problems instead of providing customer support for anguished claimants. Large parts of the system haven't been upgraded since the 1970s and a refresh in the 2000s is now out of date.

Republicans have argued that the agency has dragged its feet on the matter, saying Gov. Laura Kelly's administration hasn't made meaningful progress. Kelly and KDOL have countered that ongoing modernization efforts were scuttled by the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback.

There is progress, Wright maintained, with a long-awaited feasibility study looking at where to go with the upgrades completed and delivered to legislators. Once they sign off on it, the agency is expecting to put the project out for bid in the spring.

Kelly included $37.5 million in her budget proposal, announced Wednesday, for some IT upgrades, although a more comprehensive effort would cost far more.

The hope was to break the effort into phases, but significant work was needed, Wright said.

"It will be a complete overhaul of the system at this point," he said.