Gov. Laura Kelly announces KDOL changes as sweeping modernization effort moves on

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday that call center hours at the Kansas Department of Labor will be expanded.

Further changes are forthcoming at the Kansas Department of Labor, Gov. Laura Kelly announced Wednesday, with the move coming as legislators are set to approve a sweeping bill to help boost the state’s ailing unemployment system.

Kelly said Wednesday that KDOL will add 500 members to its call center, beginning Monday, an effort to placate residents frustrated by being unable to get through to a person to talk through their claim. 

Of those workers, 79 will be added in next week, with the remainder of the workers being trained and rotated into the call center throughout the remainder of the month. It will be by funds from the federal CARES Act already given to the agency, as well as grants from the U.S. Department of Labor, a KDOL spokesperson said Thursday.

The department will also expand its call center hours to 9 p.m. on weekdays beginning March 8 and is set to add hours on weekends between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 5 p.m. Sundays.

But she also expressed skepticism of legislation, passed by the Kansas House on Thursday, that would give legislators and the business community more say in a potential overhaul of the state’s unemployment systems.

Kelly and Republican legislators agree a revamp is needed. Members argue that a rash of fraudulent unemployment claims has been in large part due to an aging information technology backend that has not been updated in decades.

But as KDOL has struggled during the pandemic, with scores of residents maintaining they are still unable to access their benefits, Republicans have said they believe some action is needed to increase oversight of the department.

“There really are only two stakeholders on this issue,” said Rep. Marty Long, R-Ulysses. “It is the employers who pay into this and the employees who receive benefits out of it. Kansas is here to administer the system. The system has failed and this bill goes a long way to correct that failure.”

The bill also aims to equalize how much employers of different sizes are asked to pay in order to make whole the state fund which pays out unemployment benefits. There are worries that hundreds of millions in fraudulent payouts will shrink down the fund and put the burden on employers.

And a bipartisan amendment added Wednesday would change the period of time in which an individual who files a fraudulent claim is locked out of applying for benefits. Currently, the ban is five years; the bill would now change it to two.

But a potential point of contention is a provision in the bill that would only allow individuals to collect the maximum amount of unemployment if the state’s unemployment rate averages 5% over three months. 

While the state’s unemployment rate spiked above that threshold in the early months of the pandemic, it has since dropped back down. That has fueled arguments from Democrats that the proposal will cut some residents off from their benefits when it is scheduled to take effect on April 1.

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said that the measure does not consider local realities, such as layoffs at Spirit Aerosystems in his city. Other members echoed this argument.

“Tying this to a statewide average does not allow for local realities,” said Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson.

Republicans countered that cutting off benefits sooner would get recipients to hunt for a job.

“We want to get people back to work as soon as possible,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta.

But while Kelly said she had not made a decision on the legislation, it was this provision that could affect her support of the larger bill.

“There are some things that I would find a poison pill,” she said. “Reducing unemployment or making it harder to access would not make it my favorite.”

Kelly argued that things were improving at the department, pointing to $12 million in payments which went out over the weekend.

A backlog of claimants seeking payments from federal programs aimed to help out-of-work residents still remain, however. As of last week, a backlog of over 12,000 residents is waiting for aid from a program designed to help self-employed workers.

Members of the state’s Congressional delegation have called on the state to do more to address the problem. U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., the state’s lone Democrat in Congress, joined that chorus Wednesday.

“It has been nearly a year since this pandemic began and much more needs to be done to get Kansans the unemployment assistance they need right now,” Davids wrote in a letter to Kelly. “We need immediate action to address the problems plaguing KDOL and to get relief into the pockets of Kansans.”