A backlog of 25,000 residents waiting to have their unemployment insurance cases settled should have answers in the coming months, Kansas Department of Labor officials told state lawmakers Tuesday.
The department’s top IT staffer told the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Information Technology the department is aiming to significantly reduce or eliminate the backlog within the next 90 days.
"There is always a backlog — it is longer than we would like right now," Bill Periman, KDOL’s chief information officer, told committee members. "But we are working to bring it down."
The move comes as the department is seeking to recover from a tumultuous few months, with the unemployment compensation system overwhelmed with the number of claimants seeking benefits because of economic fallout related to COVID-19.
Periman said that $132 million in payments were made in 2019, a year of relatively low unemployment. That number was dwarfed by the $1.1 billion in regular unemployment benefits and federal pandemic assistance doled out from January to June.
The woes were compounded by an attempt to claw back $7 million in benefit payments mistakenly doled out to 4,500 accounts, overdrafting many of the accounts in the process.
The fallout resulted in the resignation of Labor Secretary Delia Garcia, with Gov. Laura Kelly vowing to make changes in the department, though she also said Garcia inherited a department that had been "gutted" by former Gov. Sam Brownback.
Since then, KDOL has attempted to right the ship by adding more call center employees and an online chat feature to take the heat off employees and enlisting the global IT firm Accenture to review its practices. Periman also said eight more IT staffers had been added in an effort to bolster the aging system.
And up to half of the 25,000-person appeals backlog could be quickly resolved, officials said, once the department’s legal team determines a fix for resolving en masse changes to the application that appeared to confuse many applicants.
A resolution on that should be reached either this week or next, deputy secretary Brett Flachsbarth said.
The news was welcomed by legislators, who said they are still inundated with calls from constituents dealing with issues accessing their unemployment benefits.
"I have spent more time on constituent services than my full-time job, than when I campaigned," said Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker. "We are spending mega hours — it is just unacceptable."
Sen. Kevin Braun, R-Kansas City, Kan., said after the hearing that he was intent on giving the new guard at the Department of Labor, led by Acting Secretary Ryan Wright, the benefit of the doubt.
But he pushed for a firmer timeframe on when the backlog might be resolved, he said, in an effort to ensure that residents keep their faith in the system.
"There comes a point in which you give up hope, there’s a point in which you lose faith in the state," Braun said. "I don’t want people to lose faith in the state."
Long-term system modernization is coming, KDOL said, but Braun said that wouldn’t do much for those in need of assistance in the interim.
"We aren’t getting a whole new system, none of that is going to happen in time," Braun said.
KDOL is also juggling the potential for a new unemployment assistance program to which states may have to contribute funds. That program was unveiled in an executive order issued by President Donald Trump on Saturday. It would create a new $400-a-week unemployment assistance program to help those experiencing financial turmoil during the pandemic and is designed to fill the gap of the $600-a-week assistance payments that expired Aug. 1.
From a technical standpoint, Periman said, a new system for the program would take two or three weeks to build. He said the department was reviewing the new initiative and what would be needed to get it off the ground.
Wright said in a statement Monday that more details were needed on the program but that it could divert resources from other areas, including IT.
"If we divert those resources to try and implement a plan that may not be permanent and may not even be legal, it could ultimately prevent Kansans receiving those benefits in a timely manner when a more permanent solution is just around the corner if Congress acts," Wright said.