Holiday Not a Celebration for Unemployed
Protesters Desperate for Answers from KDOL
by Peggy Bair
Weeks into Washington’s haggling – far off in the distance – over a second 2020 pandemic relief bill, Americans in the Heartland are facing the most desperate times yet – with what is fast-becoming a new normal: an expanded poverty-stricken middle class made so by joblessness and a yet-unthwarted disease.
Those whose jobs or businesses were unaffected – or are even more thriving during the pandemic, life goes on with only some annoying and pesky differences – such as wearing masks and needing to be careful to social distance in larger groups. The millions who were laid off, however, have been living an ever-tightening grip of lack with holidays bells only ringing in a daily despair. A month without income back in March, April or May would deplete some savings but not all of it as long as a job, income or revenue fired up a flow of bill-paying money again within a few weeks of the job loss.
The federal CARES Act unfurled a much need safety net that temporarily saved millions of people and businesses from immediate and complete failure in the first months of the pandemic. Unemployment insurance was shored up by a federal stipend to keep Americans from loss of food and shelter.
Kansas Department of Labor – KDOL – is tasked with managing a system of unemployment insurance that was intended to be that safety net. Under normal circumstances, the red tape process was merely tedious for unemployed workers. But with 2020, KDOL has buckled under the weight of its antiquated software and computer system. A tsunami of claims made KDOL immediately understaffed – a position from which it has never fully emerged.
Governor Laura Kelly has repeatedly acknowledged the problems and backlog in many press conferences over the course of 2020. Barely minted Kansas Labor Secretary Delia Garcia who was only confirmed in May 2019, was replaced by Gov. Kelly in June, 2020, with her Deputy Chief of Staff, Ryan Wright. (2)
“Secretary García inherited an agency that had its funding, its technology, and its staff gutted by the previous administration,” Kelly said when announcing Wright’s appointment.
Wright has attempted to improve the system but the volume of people in need continues to overwhelm the KDOL system. Wright touts numbers that show the previous backlog has been reduced, getting help to a lot more Kansans.
That help worked for some but has not been enough for others – whose claims got caught up in the snarled KDOL system that was so dysfunctional to begin with that it has brought groups of Kansans running to the internet desperately looking for answers to questions that KDOL is not addressing. Too many people are still calling too few workers resulting in long waits on hold, call transfers, dropped calls or phone calls not being answered at all. For thousands every day, the phone line to KDOL is always busy, as citizens hit redial repeatedly, sometimes over 200 times without getting a connection – only to try again the next day and the next.
According to a May, 2020 WAPO poll, minorities have been hit hardest by the pandemic unemployment debacle – an estimated 16 percent black, 20 percent hispanic jobless vs 11 percent white and 12 percent from other racial groups.(1) Even so, a great leveling has created common ground among workers across career sectors due to pandemic-related layoffs.
After months of waiting for backlogs to get cleared, the frustration level has boiled over. Frustrated Kansans whose claims are waiting payment have taken to social media sites to voice their concerns and share possible answers with each other.
For one group, the frustration level had risen to the point of protest. LaCortney Kimber of Topeka talked how she arrived at her proposal for the group Kansas Unemployment Assistance.
“I was sitting on my bed, talking on the phone with my mom informing her about everything that’s going on,” Kimber said. “I started weeping because I was so angry with myself. I felt as if I had let myself down. Do you know what it feels like to lose everything? It’s heartbreaking. I’m 28 and I lost everything. My house, car, job, furniture, I had no food, no money, etc. I couldn’t save myself. I felt like a failure. That’s when I thought of it: We should protest!”
She made a sign, went to KDOL and stood outside the building in front by the street to make some noise: “What do we want? Claims paid NOW!” ShaRon Polk, LaCortney’s significant other, who also has a pending unemployment claim – and one other protester, Jacqueline Nelson, of Lawrence, came also, and hurled their voices against the cold bricks and blinded windows of the KDOL building.
Two TV news crews arrived to film and interview the tiny group.
“This protest is in hope that our voices will be heard,” Kimber said. “We are losing everything. Many of us have been evicted from our homes and are living on the street. Some are facing eviction. We are losing cars and for the lot of us that’s our only means of transportation. We do not have food to feed our families. We are stressed, scared, we are all suffering. We need our money and we need it now. We do not have 2-4 more weeks to wait. This is it! What else do we have?”
Kimber, who has a BA in Criminology from Mississippi State, was working at Freedom Behavioral Hospital in Topeka when she was hurt on the job, she said. When she was ready to return, COVID-19 had hit and she was laid off instead of getting to return to work. She applied for the unemployment and her claim, although showing as approved benefits, has yet to be paid. She has been unsuccessful in her repeated attempts to get her claim paid.
In the course of the wait, she said she has lost her house and her car “all sentimental items and furniture” and some of her clothing that had been in the car when it was repossessed. She has now moved in with her brother who lives in Topeka.
She said she has applied for other jobs – even in fast food. But she said that she didn’t get that job because she had no fast food restaurant experience.
“What I am qualified for, they are not hiring at the moment. They are hiring in other states but I can’t travel,” Kimber said.
A separate concern for Kimber is safe workplace conditions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many Americans, health safety is a number one priority.
“I am concerned about catching COVID in the workplace,” Kimber said. “With this disease you can be asymptomatic, actually having the illness and never know because you have no symptoms. How many people are like that? That scares me because I’ve seen friends and family – people who are close to me – lose their lives to this [COVID] in a matter of days. Yes, I’m concerned but I’m more afraid than anything,” she said.
“Others have spoken with me about their reasons for attending the protest. They all have said we need answers, we are tired of the excuses,” Kimber said. “We have no food. It’s our money. We need it now and we want our claims processed.”
Fear has turned to anger that is simmering just beneath the surface for normally patient people – people who filled out paperwork, sent in required documents, faxed letters, dialed and re-dialed the KDOL phone number hundreds of times before getting through to a worker. Many have given up. Many are depressed. Kimber said she cried and fell into despair – but then chose instead to try again – this time to make a sign and show up in person at KDOL to protest.
“I want to see RESULTS, RELIEF AND HAPPINESS,” Kimber said. “I say those things because since this pandemic has been here we have all been on edge. We are all stressed about our jobs closing, we can’t celebrate holidays so we lack the happiness we had in previous years.”
“We depend on those unemployment benefits to give us a somewhat decent life as we once had. Knowing that you have lost your job and are receiving benefits, it gives you sense of relief to know you are not complete out of luck,” Kimber added.
Further muddying the waters of unemployment claims, this past week, legislators met in the Capitol to address the unemployment fraud that is now permeating the KDOL system, further driving wedges between desperately needed funds and legitimate but still unpaid claims.
Representative Jeff Pittman, 41st District and newly elected to the Kansas State Senate, posted on his social media page that legislators were getting updated this past week about fraud prevention and increased security.
“Kansas Department Of Labor has stepped up its approach because so many bad actors attempt to file for benefits—its truly sad because it negatively effects my constituents who legitimately qualify during this pandemic and a fraudulent claim and identify theft is scary,” Pittman wrote.
(1) “A recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll from May showed that 16 percent of Black workers reported being laid off, as well as 20 percent of Latinx workers. At the same time, 11 percent of white workers and 12 percent of workers from other racial groups reported being laid off.” NELP (National Employment Law Project) “THE UNEMPLOYMENT PANDEMIC: ADDRESSING AMERICA’S JOB CRISIS” June 18, 2020 by Michelle Evermore.
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