Out of Money, Out of Time

Single Mom Says She’s ‘Defeated’ by KDOL Delays

Heart KC

This story is one in a series of ongoing profiles about the effects of the 2020 Pandemic on every day Americans as they navigate the hardships of a COVID-19 world, withstanding the fallout from unemployment, loss and delays of relief by federal and state policymakers.

Jennifer Ann Hughes supports her three children  Layla, 14, Niah, 10, and Anakin, 7 at their home in Wichita, KS.
©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Jennifer Ann Hughes said last week that she hadn’t lost everything but she was very close. Looking for work, going to interviews, juggling assignments for three children in virtual school – and trusting the promises of payment from the Kansas Department of Labor – Hughes thought she would be making payments this week. But every day has come and gone with no money for the basics of food, gas money or the car payment.

In June of 2020, she lost her job with the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center.  She said she was making just shy of $20 an hour as a materials supply technician with a specialty in sterile processing – a 22 year career path that lead her to her last position at the VA. She was laid off in when surgical cases slowed at the hospital.

She said she has since applied for dozens of jobs but but she said she ends up not being qualified for the jobs and receives no call backs. 

She applied for and began receiving unemployment with KDOL – the Kansas Department of Labor – in the summer, 2020.

“I applied for unemployment June 5th,” Hughes said, “it took 5 weeks to start receiving unemployment. I was being paid weekly with no issues up to Dec. 26, 2020.” But after that, the Second Stimulus bill extensions have been delayed week after week in 2021, putting the family’s survival in jeopardy.

Because of COVID-19 safety protocols and virtual schooling children’s lives, navigating a job market plus monitoring schooling for her two elementary-age children, Hughes said the unemployment compensation brought her family a literal lifeline for much of 2020. At the end of December, however, the Second Stimulus Bill brought with it a set of new parameters and delays that have thrown the single mother and her three children from having the basics, instead, into daily uncertainty.

Where will they get rent money, the car payment – food?

“They don’t get it,” Hughes said, referring in general towards decision-makers at unemployment. “Come live my life and tell me what I can do better,” she said.

“I have worked since I was 14, never claiming unemployment before,” she added. “My kids come first. Who is going to put my kids first besides me? I will not let them fail.”

Accepting help is not something Hughes is accustomed to doing. She has maintained a certain level of pride at being self-reliant.

“I have gotten no other help nor applied for it because I feel like I’m ridiculed because of it,” she said. But those thoughts changed as time wore on with no money.

“I will suck up my pride,” she finally said. “I go to food banks.”

Monday, February 22, 2021, was a deadline set by her bank to receive a payment on her care to keep it from repossession. She had not received her unemployment funds by then. 

Anakin, 7, and Niah, 10, chase each other around their driveway Monday, February 22, 2021. Their mother, Jennifer Ann Hughes has been able to make it through the 2020 pandemic with the help of funds from KDOL and the CARES Act – but her claim from the Second Stimulus bill has gone unpaid despite her account being in good standing. “I’m going to lose my car. How would I get to work if I find a job?” Hughes said. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

To add to the lack of money, she said, she and her kids have had to deal with sickness this winter with winter colds. “It’s just another thing that knocked us down and we had to get through.” 

Niah, 10, is one of the three children dependent on the funds provided to her mother Jennifer Ann Hughes from the Kansas Department of Labor via unemployment and the CARES Act. Now that the children are back to in-person schooling, Hughes depends on her car to get to her to job interviews and to food banks to provide food for her family. The CARES Act funds were extended through March 15, 2021 but Hughes’ claim has gone unpaid for the past 11 weeks. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

“It’s hard. I feel like I am at my lowest point in my life ever and I’m overwhelmed with having to make sure I am making the right decision for the kids and me. I don’t know where to start or how to fix anything.”

Her children have spent most of the school year at home due to COVID-19. “I’m pushing my luck on my house right now and food banks are a savior – but it’s hard to get to them with me supervising the kids during school.”

At some point in early 2021, Jennifer wrote: “I’ve put in 150 applications, a dozen interviews and keep getting denied. I feel like a humongous loser.” 

One of the interviews, she said, “…the lady said I was ‘too old.’”

Over the course of the past few weeks, the intensity of financial need and complexities of interacting with KDOL have caused desperate dialogue on social media sites among recipients whose claims either have not been paid at all, have issues that have not been resolved or have been suspended due to problems within the unemployment system.

Jennifer successfully activated her claims on the updated computer system on February 2, 2021. 

But she still has not been paid since the Second Stimulus bill was enacted on December 27, 2020 – 11 weeks of missing payments that have thrown her behind on her payments.

A promise to pay people by February 19th provided a glimpse of hope for stressed applicants under pressure from landlords and banks who are not under any obligation to further wait for payments.

“I literally woke up today with like 2% hope that something in my checking account would change or on my unemployment account. But that quickly was sucked out of me and spat back in my face,” Hughes said this week.

Jennifer’s unemployment account is showing as active, she said, and she has been able to continue to file her weekly claims even with the KDOL update to their computer system – which required applicants to re-verify their identities. The KDOL department has fought to overcome thousands of fraudulent unemployment claims. 

KDOL sent out notices in February that unemployment payments would be sent out in “phases” – with the bulk of payments for “Phase One” starting February 19.

By Tuesday, February 23, Jennifer checked her account again, hoping her Phase One status would mean money in her bank account. “I am so devastated,” she wrote. “I have been able to get ahold of someone [at KDOL] and they tell me my account is good and all my weekly claims are caught up and filed and – ‘just wait.’” 

With no money to pay bills, her bill collectors have grown impatient. The bank started the process to repossess her car. 

With no job, and no money from KDOL, fear and depression are bearing down on her, Hughes said. “I’m absolutely defeated.” ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

She said that her younger two were back to in-person classes February 18 for the first time in the 2020-21 school year.

“My kids are innocent and do not deserve the situation they were forced into or how bad my mental state has been effected. They can see. So, in turn they have to deal with that also and other things they don’t deserve and neither do I,” she said.

Jennifer said her own attitudes towards unemployed people have changed since the loss of her own job.

“I definitely became more empathetic after I was let go during this pandemic – way more empathetic than I was when I was employed in February and March – when I felt people could’ve done more to help their own situations,” Jennifer said. “I now know my thought process was way off base and I’m getting my Karma for even having the thoughts of others.”

She said she is at a low point in her life. 

“I had a little hope left going into Friday the 19th but of course I should have known better. I’m going to lose my car because I had to pay them [the lien holder] one whole car payment by the end of the business yesterday.”

“I can’t get a job. I can’t get KDOL to pay me. I can’t get my taxes [return that is owed to her]. Literally, the only thing that had me holding on are those kids,” said Hughes.

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Peggy Bair
Peggy Bair

Peggy Bair is a Midwest journalist and photographer covering human interest stories throughout Middle America.

I am an alum of the English Department of the University of Missouri – Kansas City with continuing studies in Nutrition Communications from Arizona State University.
I am a member of the American Society of Media Photographers, the National Press Photographers Association and Professional Photographers of America. I have worked on the staffs of six different newspapers throughout my career and specialize in people stories. Your support of local journalism helps me keep bringing stories that connect us and perhaps lift your spirits.

Although my business has been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not accepted any payment, grants, government assistance or unemployment for my journalism during this pandemic. If you would like to donate to support honest, informative storytelling, you can contribute by posting any amount to my PayPal donation link. In any case, sharing the link to this story with others helps spread the positive, share the happiness that is HeartKC.