Pandemic Poverty Grips Middle Class Jobless

Pandemic Poverty Grips Middle Class Jobless

KDOL owes thousands of Kansas workers for back unemployment.

Cassandra Dickerson of Olathe, KS is raising three young children and has turned to food pantries to help because her unemployment claims have not been paid. She has traveled to Topeka for the past two Fridays to lead peaceful protests about the plight of unpaid unemployment claims from KDOL. She hopes the peaceful protests she has organized each week at the Capitol in Topeka will get her an audience with Governor Kelly. Dickerson’s confident leadership skills and voice articulated the concerns of Kansans who have gone unpaid through the KDOL system – but Dickerson became tearful when asked to discuss the fears and embarrassment in having to take her own children to food pantries for assistance. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Months now of weekly promises to financially-strapped unemployed Kansas workers – some from Missouri because they worked in their border state of Kansas – has escalated to weekly gatherings of “peaceful protest” at the Capitol building in Topeka.

In a push for more expedient action in getting payment to out of work Kansans, a gathering of about 14 protesters from various towns in both Kansas and Missouri – brought signs and made a video broadcast of their concerns on social media on Friday, February 26, with hopes of getting a peaceful meeting with Kansas state lawmakers and Governor Kelly.

“All pride aside – not that I am prideful – but I didn’t want to broadcast that I’m unemployed,” Dickerson said. “I didn’t want to tell the media today that I had to go to my church pantry. Even though I’m thankful. I go to church with these people every single Sunday and I had to let that pride go because I have three kids. I don’t care about putting myself out there if it’s going to help,” she said. 

Asked by HeartKC what it is that she wants by going to the Capitol, Dickerson said that she wants Governor Kelly to come out to the next protest and meet with the group to hear them.

“At this point, the situation is so great that she needs to address us directly. I don’t want to hear from the communications director at KDOL. I don’t want to hear from the deputy secretary of KDOL. The crisis is so big she herself – the governor of this state – who we voted for – she needs to address this,” Dickerson said.

One lawmaker came out of the Capitol Friday, February 26, 2021 to meet with the protesters. Freshman representative Aaron Coleman from Kansas City, KS, met with the group and escorted several of them inside the Capitol somewhat to the consternation of Capitol police inside. Coleman then continued to meet with the group outside the Capitol. He said he did not know why so many claims are being held up but he spoke with the protesters and sympathized with their concerns.

About 14 protesters gathered at the Capitol Friday, February 26, in Topeka in hopes of meeting with legislators about their unpaid unemployment claims. Thousands have gone weeks or even months with promised federal and state relief funds. The situation has become desperate for some, who have become homeless and for many others, who are out of food or getting food from local pantries. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Other lawmakers have also been helping constituents connect with representatives at KDOL. Senator Jeff Pittman of District 5 encourages constituents to reach out to him if they are having problems with their unemployment claims. He follows up every week to see what progress is being made on their claims and if they have gotten a call back.

Representative Mari-Lynn Poskin of District 20, met with protesters last week at the Capitol and has been helping constituents as well.

LaCortney Kimber, of Topeka, who was the first Kansan to attend a peaceful protest at KDOL in December 2020, said she lost everything she previously owned as a result of job loss and her unemployment claim never getting paid.
©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

A small group continued their stance outside the KDOL office after the late morning gathering at the Capitol. They talked about how they arrived at this spot in this jobless condition – and hoped their presence would elevate their voices to the point of resolving the mistakes hindering payment of their unemployment money.

LaCortney Kimber stood at the very first KDOL protest back in December, 2020. The soft-spoken young woman said she was living her dream life prior to COVID-19, having graduated college, acquired a job she loved, a house and her dream car. She has struggled with her health issues as well over the past year in addition to not getting her claim resolved. However, this week, she finally got a call back from KDOL on Friday with a promise to try and get her claim paid. If will be a welcome relief but too late to offset the losses of her house, her cars and her personal possessions. She has been living with her brother in Topeka just to survive.

“He [the representative] said everything was fine. But, I’ve heard that before,” Kimber said.

The massive layoffs and changes in the job market from the COVD-19 pandemic has finally – after nearly a year, sent those effected by the pandemic-related layoffs over a financial cliff. Those who depend on the KDOL system to distribute Federal pandemic relief funds in addition to jobless benefits have begun reaching budget-gutting breaking points.

KDOL’s crippled computer system coupled with fraudulent claims, continues to plague this vital department tasked with keeping lifelines going for thousands of Kansas workers. But the series of relief packages launched out of Washington each has new requirements that have to be programmed into the unemployment system’s software.

One of those requirements in the Second Stimulus bill was to re-verify the identity of each applicant. KDOL, on its third director in less than a year, and woefully understaffed, scrambled to accomplish the massive task starting in January after receiving directives from the Federal level on December 31. Claimants were confused by multiple requests for documents they had already submitted and nearly three month delays in payments from that Second Stimulus bill.

For Kansans – and Missourians who lost jobs in Kansas who are entitled to and making claims in Kansas – not receiving their benefits on time and not being able to find work has created a swirl of survival threats in the form of evictions, repossessions of cars, dwindling savings, no food and loss of possessions as they have begun selling belongings to afford even just the basics. Many had to dip into 401K accounts or use credit cards to make payments – and are now maxed out completely with no place left to go to pay for their life needs.

Every person’s situation tends to be unique.

Christina Bestvater of Wichita lost her job due when her doctor said that her health conditions prevented her from continuing to work her customer service job at Dillons Grocery store. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Unemployment money from the CARES Act helped Christina Bestvater and her husband survive the initial pandemic year of 2020. “I never had a problem filing claims. I never had a problem with that new 2-step verification (a verification process required by the Second Stimulus bill). I still haven’t gotten paid. I can’t get ahold of anybody at the fraud department,” Bestvater said.

After the Second Stimulus bill was signed, with unemployment extension package, she stopped receiving her money from KDOL. She called and was told everything was fine and just keep filing her claims every week. But at the end of January, her account said “temporarily suspended” and this time when she reached a representative, she was told her account was flagged as fraud.

“And I was, like, ‘It’s ME’ – I talked a woman at KDOL and she verified my identity. But nothing changed. I have sent three times my drivers license, photo ID and social security number,” she said. “I’ve done everything they asked.”

At this point, she said, her claim with KDOL has four problems, none of which are her making. “No one can help on the phone lines unless it’s the fraud department. Two weeks ago, I called bawling and crying. Then I called again last Friday [February 20],” Bestvater said. She was told to send her documents again and it would be immediately given to the fraud department. “She said, ‘I can’t give you a time frame of when they are gonna get back with you.'” As of Friday, she was awaiting a call back.

In a lawn chair.

Just outside KDOL’s door.

With a protest sign.

EcoWater fired JoAnne Ward, of Wichita, because of the pandemic and still have not called her back. Because of a non-compete agreement with EcoWater, she can’t sell water treatment in Kansas, Missouri or Oklahoma. Water has been Ward’s career for 30 years. In order to work in that field, though, she would have to leave and go to a state far away from her son and grandchildren.
@2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

JoAnne Ward – originally from Hamilton, KS – said she was separated from her job with EcoWater in Wichita during the pandemic – and received her unemployment from KDOL for 2020. The unemployment relief was a lifeline for the 60-year-old during year where COVID-19 was inhibiting businesses that closely interacted with the public at a time when health agencies were still unpacking the characteristic of the disease. Close contact with the public put her job in a higher risk category. The CARES Act and its extension worked well for her until those benefits expired December 26, 2020. The Second Stimulus Bill that was signed Dec 27, 2020, which is where Ward’s particular problems began.

She qualified for another 11 weeks of payments but despite following directions to file online, her payments stopped – a common refrain echoed by other claimants who have shared on the specialized social media pages with names like “Kansas Unemployment Help” and “Unemployment Kansas” on Facebook.

Ward’s attempts to reach KDOL to resolve why she isn’t receiving payments requires her to call the KDOL office. Thousands of claimants are calling the help lines, though, which leads to a KDOL voicemail telling claimants to call back – which they do, often up to hundreds of times a day. Trying to reach a representative has has eaten up hours of Ward’s time every day.

She had spoken to them in January when they told her that her claim was good and to just keep filing.

“I haven’t spoken to them in six weeks now,” she said. “I’ve called and called. I’ve sent emails. Nothing.”

For Ward, another complicating factor is that she is unable to return to working in her field due to a non-compete agreement with EcoWater who is not rehiring her but also won’t allow Ward to work for another water company in Kansas, Missouri or Oklahoma. Kansas is one of the states in the U.S. that allows non-compete agreements.

The effect of not paying out her KDOL claim for the past 11 weeks has meant she has had to pay for everything with her credit cards – which are now all maxed out. Not realizing that it was going to be nearly 3 months of non-payment, she didn’t realize things would go this far. would be temporary.

But, reality hit when she had only $25 in her bank account on Valentines Day – a holiday she would normally have gotten little gifts for her two grandchildren. Instead, when she weighed whether or not to get a little something for her two grandchildren she would be seeing that day, she decided she couldn’t risk even something at the Dollar Store being still in limbo on her lack of payments from KDOL. She still needed to have some money for food.

A friend got her a food box from the local pantry. Her son, who is a single father supporting her two grandchildren, gave her $100 this past week, which she is stretching to cover as much as she can. She had to accept help from her parents as well. She helps with her grandchildren’s virtual schooling so her son can keep working.

When her car was totaled late last year, she searched for two months to find the best car she could find for $2500 she had set aside. But savings are all depleted now and even credit is no longer an option. She’s uncertain how she can keep making it without a job and without unemployment financial relief. “My option is to take a low-paying job. I don’t have a degree,” Ward said. “[Water] is a very profitable position I’ve been doing for 30 years and now they want to stop me from being able to make a living.”

“I had thousands of dollars in my savings before this [pandemic] happened. My credit cars were all paid off. Now I’m $10,000 in credit card debt. My credit score – down the tubes,” she said. When you get to the point when you where you can’t pay your bills anymore and you have nothing left to lose and the people who are supposed to be supporting you don’t for weeks on end, you feel like you’ve been pushed to the edge. You just lose all sanity. I remember crying and screaming in my house out of frustration of not being able to get somebody to talk to you or tell you what was going on or what was up. It’s heart-wrenching. I can’t tell you how many days I’ve cried.”

When other protesters left for the day on Friday around 2 p.m., Ward found herself the lone protester on the corner in front of KDOL.

By 5:30 p.m., Ward – who had spent the money for gas driving from Wichita to Topeka and spent half the day sitting alone in front of the building with her sign – said she walked over closer to the front door to try to talk to employees as they left the building. “At that point, it was all on the table for me. I had to get someone’s attention,” Ward said.

“I was standing about 10 feet in front of the door trying to talk to them as they came out. I didn’t want to get too close and spook them,” she said.

“Four people came out, looked away and kept walking,” Ward said. “One man looked at me and smiled and kept walking.”

One last person walked out the door – but this time, the woman’s eyes met Ward’s.

“When her eyes and my eyes met, I started crying – I literally broke down crying out to her before she acknowledged me. She couldn’t take it and said she would help but ‘please stop crying,'”Ward said the woman told her.

“She didn’t have to help but she did.” It was a supervisor – who then gave Ward her email address to contact her.

“It was probably one of the most humiliating things I’ve ever experienced,” Ward said. “It was embarrassing.”

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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.