Unpaid Kansans Tapped Out, Fed Up
This is one in a series of profiles showing faces of Americans effected by the cascade of economic, sickness and emotional devastation since the beginning of the 2020 pandemic.
Nearly a year after losing her job due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kansas resident Anastasia Anthony fears for the welfare of her two children as she scrapes by financially without receiving any of the past 11 weeks of payments she is owed from the Kansas Department of Labor as of February 24, 2020. In spite of calling daily to try to reach a call agent, as instructed to comply with the latest requests from the KDOL, she is unable to get through to an agent at the call center to find out what is wrong with her claim or why she isn’t receiving her money. She has reached out to her state representatives, and is now – along with thousands of others whose claims are unpaid – fed up with KDOL. Her state representative and senator did not respond to her requests for help with her unemployment claim issues. Governor Kelly’s office did respond and requested a call-back for her but she has yet to receive the call.
The backstory about KDOL reaches back into early 2020, when the overwhelmed and understaffed department – crippled by fraud and an antiquated computer system – was brought to near collapse by the millions effected by the safety protocols required to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Slowly rolled-out Federal relief packages brought much-needed funds to the states – but also added new regulations on how to distribute those funds. The regulations had to be written into the states’ software each time new programs were implemented.
The Second Stimulus bill was passed on December 26, 2020 but was not signed by President Trump until December 27, 2020. This left a gap between the initial CARES Act and, at least in Kansas, without bridge legislation from the Kansas state lawmakers to keep the CARES Act programs going seamlessly, there was a stop and start up gap between the two bills.
Some states’ DOLs were in better shape than others. Kansas, though, was decades overdue for upgrades inside KDOL – even before the pandemic caused a cascade of issues that nearly led to the collapse of the department’s ability to pay out claims in a timely fashion. Kelly has now asked the Federal government to help fund a new system that will ultimately fix the problems. Those fixes are 3-5 years away to be completely put in place. But the state is hoping to fast-track enough of the improvements to make the system better by later in 2021.
What recipients are communicating, though, is that these fixes are coming far too late to help a large number of people who have suffered unrecoverable losses or losses that will take so many years to mend that people have lost hope for their futures. Where they thought they would have money to pay their bills – they have not received the money as promised. As a result, debtors are repossessing property like cars and evicting people from their homes, causing hazard to people’s security and throwing people’s credit into disrepair.
Anthony was getting paid up to month of December, 2020. The Second Stimulus bill came with new parameters, though, and KDOL was required to implement them in order to pay the extensions in the new bill.
For Anthony, in order to get further relief from the Second Stimulus bill, a conversation has to take place with a KDOL agent in order for some of her information to be verified again. However, she is unable to get a callback or a call through the phone lines, which are jammed with thousands of other Kansans also trying to get through to the limited number of agents. She ends up instead hearing a message that the call queue is full and to call back later. She repeats the steps to call KDOL – more than a hundred times each day.
Anthony efforts have taken her deeper into communications with legislators and government officials. She even reached out to a newly-elected Kansas state representative who is out of her own district – Mari-Lynn Poskin, of Kansas District #20. Poskin did respond to Anthony’s contact and stopped to talk with people who attended a protest on Friday, February 19, 2021 in front of KDOL. Poskin has been trying to help Anthony make contact with an agent inside KDOL but has been unsuccessful as well.
Her claim continues to be suspended pending verification of a simple piece of information that can only be resolved by talking to a live agent, KDOL has told her. (Anthony has shared with HeartKC copies of six different correspondences that she has written since the first part of January, 2021, to legislators and Governor Kelly’s office requesting a call back from KDOL, including the one following:)
On Wed, Jan 20, 2021, 1:10 PM Office of Governor Laura Kelly(imailagent) <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Thank you for contacting the Governor’s office regarding your unemployment issue. We have received the necessary information to investigate your concern and we have requested the appropriate staff member at the Kansas Department Of Labor review your concern as soon as possible.
Constituent Services Representative
Office of the Governor
Of greater concern is that Anthony, like millions of other Americans, is attempting to cobble together a series of survival moves that will keep her and her two children housed and fed as COVID-19 continues its grip on society. The fallout from continued economic losses are likely to require an extensive recovery even if the predictions of a better normal come true sometime in the next year or so.
For Anthony – and millions of others like her – life wasn’t supposed to look like this. Before COVID, her career path was on the upswing. Her future looked bright. Even after COVID-19, the unemployment picture was supposed to be a temporary, passing glitch. The unemployment to help her through was supposed to be an easy, simple safety net.
But KDOL, like most, if not all, of the 50 states’ departments of labor, was hit by tsunami of fraudulent unemployment and pandemic relief claims during 2020. The massive fraud created an an even bigger chaos for its antiquated computer and software system – a system, like many other state unemployment systems – that was woefully unguarded and easily tricked into funneling money to fraudsters worldwide. (1)
Exacerbating the fraud issue was the hailstorm of claims due to pandemic job losses that gripped the country nationwide. Federal pandemic relief money from the CARES Act issued Mid-2020 offered some relief for many, but not all, of those who were hardest hit by the chaotic job market.
To complicate understanding by the masses of the true nature of economic impact was that the market was dotted with stability here and there – but riddled with swaths of darkened and black interiors along the way as well. Most hard hit economically were businesses where people would normally gather close together in large numbers.
The hospitality industry, airlines, restaurants, and workers who support all of those areas of employment – all had gaping empty spaces where employed people used to earn a living enough to: buy cars, pay rent, food, mortgages and go on vacations…on airplanes.
Anthony’s dream job vanished last year because it is connected with the airline industry that has been one of the businesses suffering casualties from the pandemic.
While waiting for KDOL to answer its phone to resolve the hold up in her unemployment, Anthony has joined others online in places like the Facebook page “Kansas Unemployment” who converse and share information on social media sites aimed at helping others discuss solutions to unresolved unemployment claims. A few people have recently said they have gotten paid but others have posted that they have been evicted, are getting their cars repossessed – or even going without anything to eat.
Fiercely self-sufficient, Anthony has found herself in a situation she said she’s never been in her life – crying every day out of worry and stress over not being able to provide for her two children. She said she’s lost 20 pounds. She says it’s stress.
Fortunately, the Oxford Public School district provides food boxes for the children in the school district. The food is intended to go to the entire family. But Anthony won’t eat any of it.
“I don’t eat the food the school sends home. That is for my children. The school intends it for all of us but I intend it just to be for them,” Anthony said. “They will eat fine for a few days.”
She had her dream job, she said, when, “through no fault of my own” she was laid off due to the fallout from the pandemic. She worked for years in the food and beverage industry and just two years ago, she was thrilled to be hired by TECT Aerospace in Wellingon, KS. She was first hired on as a deburr technician and did that job for the first eight months of her employment there. She was a believer in the Horatio Alger adage “work hard and your efforts will be rewarded.”
“It was a hard, dirty job that didn’t pay well. But I put in a bid for an open machinist job and I got it,” Anthony said. She trained for about 3 weeks and was supervised another two weeks, then on her own finally. She said she felt she had finally made it to a successful place in her work life.
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, it hit the airline industry hard as air travel slowed to drastic all-time lows. As the least-senior machinist, Anthony was laid off on May 15, 2020.
“I was doing the job I wanted and loved it. I just want to be a machinist. I just want my job back,” Anthony said.
Anthony was hoping the situation would be temporary, that the pandemic would clear up and life would return to normal. Then, she thought, she would soon be back at work. The temporary safety net of unemployment payments helped her maintain the rent for her small house in Oxford, Kansas. Being near her extended family in her home town brought a certain degree of comfort during the uncertainty of what would soon engulf her entire life and the lives of those around her.
Three weeks after being laid off, her father passed away from cancer. She was grateful to have been able to take care of him during his last days. It was summer of 2020 and the unemployment she was receiving was a saving grace in a devastating of losses.
By October, she thought she might be re-hired. But the airline industry continued to be too hard-hit to recover that quickly. Uncertainty and debate in Washington over unemployment extensions added to the single mother’s stress.
While Washington debated: “Should people get $600 extra or $300 extra?” – parents struggled to monitor their children’s virtual schooling while juggling payments within the families’ dwindling finances. Food bank lines grew to miles long in some places. A Leavenworth County, KS county District Attorney Todd Thompson came on social media and talked about a recent theft of food that the Leavenworth Police Department ended up resolving by helping the person get needed food. Thompson reminded readers that “we don’t condone criminal activity” but also took the opportunity to mention local help agencies.
As Washington finally appeared last August to be coming close to an agreement on another relief package, there were still arguments about exactly what it would contain. Some people had already gone months without answers or money – and without jobs – dipped further into savings, cashed in investments – or borrowed money – to make basic payments for rent, car payments, utilities and food.
Meanwhile new government-created acronyms were invented. Different programs for people qualifying for different type of assistance sprouted up for unemployment applicants and recipients to decipher and navigate. There was FPUC (Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation) which was different than PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) as opposed to UI (Unemployment Insurance) – all with accompanying charts and graphs created to make it easy to figure out the mass of confusion directions. Each programs had its with own list of qualifications. And pages – and pages – of detailed parameters that had to be followed in accordance with regulations and guidance about how to distribute funds to who with which forms to fill out. With each new program, there were questions – but no one to ask since there weren’t enough agents to meet the demand. KDOL attempted to post answers on its website with charts and graphs and explanations. News stations attempted to offer helpful explanations of the programs and contact information.
But no one except KDOL could put money in the hands of the people who were applying. Promises to pay were followed by stops and starts as KDOL worked to resolve the backlog of claims. They added personnel, then, on the first weekend in February, 2021, they took the entire unemployment system off line to implement a anti-fraud system. In keeping with the last 2020 federal pandemic relief guidelines, KDOL was required to re-verify every applicant’s identity one by one – yet another in the long series of obstacles to getting money to people whose budgets were already at a breaking point.
The entire pandemic fiasco has brought even normally stable people onto shaky emotional ground, still searching for what their future is going to look like.
“I thought I would be back at my old job by now,” Anthony said. “Now I am scared. I don’t know what to do. I am not sure when or if I am getting paid or where my money will come from next. Like, what will I do for work? Aircraft isn’t hiring.”
In seeking other employment, Anthony said she’s applied for other places to work.
“I am overqualified for other jobs,” Anthony explained. “They will tell an aircraft worker ‘no’ because they know we will leave when a job opens in our career path. Then that other company will have spent thousands to train us and insure us. Then we leave for a better paying job in our career path.”
The Kansas Department of Labor system is designed to help people get through financially during temporary, unexpected disasters or job losses that are not of the employees’ own choice, such as layoffs. Employers and employees pay into that system, which normally works well as long as unemployment stays below a certain level. For some who are unfamiliar with the workings of unemployment or who have not experienced extended job loss, there sometimes is a misperception that unemployment compensation is “free money for lazy people who would rather stay home than work.” Some of the people with this thinking are legislators who are in positions of power who hold the purse strings to financial assistance programs.
Lindsay Graham, a U.S. Senator from South Carolina, objected to extending the additional unemployment benefits once they expired in July, 2020.
“July 31st is when this expires and I promise you, over our dead bodies, this will get reauthorized,” Graham said, arguing that “the benefits are so generous that people will opt to receive them rather than go to work, and called them an ‘abberation’ he promised to fix.” (2)
“Says the guys making a shit-ton of money,” Anthony said about Graham’s statement. “Last time I checked $40,000 isn’t a lot of money. That is what I made last year working and collecting unemployment and what I made the year before working,” Anthony said.
“The money they give the unemployed is not enough to cover what some have lost,” she added. “We didn’t ask for this. This was not our fault. All this [talk about unemployment being easy money] says that they are trying to kick us while we are down and pour more salt in our wounds.”
“It would take way more than $300 extra a week to fix the problems that [the pandemic layoffs] have created for the unemployed,” Anthony said. “The loss of property, credit, health, dental, mental health, family and – life. The lasting effect this will have on our children having to watch their parents lose everything…having to build lives back and recover from this. It will take years and more than $300 a week. Not all can be replaced, like family heirlooms that have been sold, collector items and antiques. Credit has been ruined by repos, foreclosures and late bills.”
Anthony imparted some last words for legislators who are against providing needed assistance for Americans during this unprecedented time of disease and unemployment:
They think we are living the high life out here. We aren’t. This isn’t pretty or fun. This is ugly, pathetic, desperate, devastating, sad, horrific – sad, just really f—ing sad.
So to those people I hope you never have to experience this. And if they do have to experience it, God help their souls. They will then know our struggles and I wish that on no one.”
***UPDATE 2.27.2021: Anthony received a callback from a KDOL representative on February 25 to get her claim resolved. She was told her claim was fixed. She drove from Wichita to Topeka – a 2 1/2 hour drive – on Friday to attend a peaceful protest at the Capitol building. As of Friday, February 26, the claim was still showing as “INACTIVE” according to her online access, she said.
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