The KDOL Stall

Unemployed Beg for Answers Amid KDOL Stall

Evictions • Shutoffs • Debt Presses Unemployed Kansas Workers Towards a Perilous Ledge

HeartKC presents another segment in a series of profiles about the ongoing landscape of financial struggles for Midwesterners as they navigate pandemic poverty in the what many of them term ‘the new normal.’ With the rollover of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 into 2021, many Kansas workers still struggle to find a financial footing on a slippery slope of job losses compounded by unfilled promises of federal and state relief payments from a crippled Kansas Department of Labor and a legislature that has just passed more restrictive unemployment benefit requirements. – Peggy Bair, HeartKC.

by Peggy Bair

Ashley Osterhaus, 32, and her husband Ryan Osterhaus, 34, started 2020 off with some great news: they were expecting a child. That child would be joining older sisters Raelynn, 3, and Emma, 9 where the family lives in Topeka, KS.

Ashley’s job as a hairdresser and Ryan’s job in the Topeka Frito-Lay Warehouse had helped them build a pretty nice life for themselves.

“We have a good lifestyle. It’s not luxury. It’s not like we live exhorbitantly. It’s more basic.”

The couple felt they had their lives planned out and they were on a good path forward together. As Ashley’s belly grew, she went to part time work.

“I just couldn’t do standing behind the chair with my big belly,” she said. That was the week before COVID hit and the lockdown got implemented in Kansas. Like most of the rest of the country, Ashley was suddenly home for an initial pandemic lockdown period.

Alec Osterhaus 8 mos., was brought with his family to attend a rally in front of Kansas Governor Laura Kelly’s mansion Saturday, March 13, 2021 in Topeka. His mother Ashley is wanting answers from the Kansas Department of Labor as to why her federal unemployment relief money has not been paid to her for the past 11 weeks. KDOL has said that they are working as quickly as possible to pay claimants but continue to blame the state’s antiquated computer and software systems and a shortage of KDOL workers available to process claims. Governor Kelly has recently added hundreds more KDOL workers to clear the backlogs of claims like Ashley’s. ©2021 Peggy Bair/HeartKC

“Then when everybody went back to work, you know, we didn’t know much about COVID. We just knew it was a respiratory illness and we were all terrified,” Ashley said.

“My middle daughter has asthma and we do breathing treatments, emergency inhalers and all that. COVID, being a respiratory disease,” she said. [To her daughter] “‘I can’t send you to school.’ You assumed kids were more susceptible since they put everything in their mouth and we didn’t know what we know now. So, I had to stay home with her and I couldn’t go back to work. Her preschool closed all together so I have to stay home with her with the pandemic going on,” Ashley said.

The family had to tighten down their finances. Ashley applied for and began receiving emergency unemployment benefits through a CARES Act Federal program called PUA – Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

Because she had a child at home with asthma – and that child’s daycare was closed during the pandemic, she had to stay home with that child. Life wasn’t that easily compartmentalized, though.

“Then, to have a baby in the middle of the pandemic – well, the beginning,” she corrected. “We thought it was the middle.”

The PUA program had worked well enough for her in 2020, bringing much needed financial relief to their family of five since Ashley was unable to work at her job as a hairdresser far longer than the lockdown.

The Extended Cares Act was signed on Dec. 27, 2020, the day after the first CARES Act expired. Ashley’s benefits suddenly stopped.

“It was very helpful until mid-December but once the extension got approved, I haven’t received anything since,” Ashley said. It’s been 11 weeks and no PUA payments.

To those who say to the pandemic unemployed “just get a job” Ashley explained that the circumstances right now make it impossible.

“I have virtual schooling with two kids. I can’t work a full time job. If I were to take a full time job, it wouldn’t cover the day care of any one of them, let alone all three, so I have to stay home,” Ashley said since all three children must be at home now due to COVID protocols.

Like most people who have faced struggles the past year, Ashley said she recognizes that there are other people who have it worse than she feels her own family has it.

“We’re one of the few luckys that we haven’t lost anything,” Ashley said. “You know, my kids didn’t get to have big birthday parties or anything like that – which is nothing compared to what most people are sacrificing. Luckily, he [Ryan] has been able to take care of us by working so much overtime.” 

Ryan Osterhaus works his job at the Frito-Lay Topeka Warehouse all the hours he can get to help support his family that was a formerly two-income household. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

The consequences of not receiving her PUA money from the federal extended benefits act are taking a toll on her husband Ryan.

“Unfortunately, the kids don’t get to see their dad very often,” Ashley said. “They get to see him but he works at [FritoLay] so he’s working lots of 12s [12-hour shifts] and working extra shifts and weekends just to try to cover ends meet [sic].”

Ashley Osterhaus said she just wants someone from the Kansas Department of Labor to tell her the truth about why her Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claim has gone unpaid for 11 weeks. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

 Ashley said she has been actively seeking help getting her Pandemic Unemployment Assistance by taking all the steps she knows how to take.

“I have emailed the governor, the governor’s office, I’ve emailed the President’s (Biden) office,” she said. She said she emailed all the representatives in her surrounding area, along with Senators Moran and Marshall. While Moran and Marshall sent their standard responses, she felt she needed a more personal response.

“One did,” she said. “He even gave me a phone call and was, like, ‘You’re not just another number. We’re fighting. I’ve been fighting for you.'” It was  67th District Representative John Alcala.  “He actually took the time to call back. I actually felt like a person.”

Representative John Alcala responded to Ashley’s request for help in a way that Ashley felt acknowledged her “as a person”
©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair HeartKC

“We are one of the more fortunate people in that he [Ryan] is able to work so much all the time,” she said. “I wish he didn’t have to.”

Ashley said she felt compelled to attend the Kansans March on March 13 in front of the governor’s mansion since meeting so many others on social media who are also struggling. 

“I know people who have lost their house and don’t have food and they couldn’t be here today because they don’t have gas,” Ashley said. But she said that her and her husband Ryan packed up the kids and came over to join others in front of the governor’s mansion, hoping to shake out some results. “I wanted to teach my girls that it’s okay to stand up for things that are right,” she said, as her daughter Emma, passed back and forth in front of Governor Kelly’s house with a sign that bore a message chastising the KDOL agency.

The cost of living and a raising a family in the 21st century is higher than it has been in the past, Ashley admitted.

“Our economy is so set up for two working full time parents to be able to take care of everything in the household. The cost of living is not set up for a family to function off of one income,” Ashley said. 

As the family reached the three month mark without receiving the PUA payments from KDOL, the tightening of their budget has gotten to a critical point.

“We are trying to find out if we can qualify to refinance my car because we are falling behind. It’s not like we live exhorbitantly. I mean we only have one car payment. It’s not like it’s brand new,” she said.

The family has cut back in other ways to make their limited dollars stretch.

“We cut internet back, we don’t have cable anymore, the car needs an oil change 7000 miles ago. We eat a lot more peanut butter and jelly and ramen noodles than we’ve ever eaten before just to try to keep the grocery bill down. You know, that’s not healthy for two growing girls. But you can’t feed them red meat and chicken and stay in the budget,” Ashley said.

For the first time in her life she had to figure out how to apply for food assistance programs so that she could take advantage of getting enough food for the younger two children, who qualified. There’s a catch, though.

“When Ryan works all the overtime, that qualification reduces,” she said.

On top of this virtual schooling she had to help her daughter figure out the ‘new math’ – “The first week of virtual school, my husband came home and I was sitting on the floor crying. ‘I don’t know what to do.’” 

“I went to my doctor to get anxiety and depression medicine,” she said, “I was struggling how to be a mom to three kids and stay home and not have a job – it was a lot.” 

Ashley said that the pressure of not being able to reach anyone in KDOL to help her finds answers spurred her into action with others who are sharing their frustrations on internet sites as they try to help each other get straight answers they don’t feel they are getting from KDOL. For instance, a promise of payments getting issued starting February 19 was communicated to claimants from KDOL in February. But by the first week of March, thousands of Kansas workers had still not been paid, did not know why and could not get through on the phone lines at KDOL to get answers. Many spent entire days dialing in to reach a representative but failed. At this point, thousands of Kansas unemployed claimants have not been paid for 11 weeks.

Ashley Osterhaus holds her son Alec, 8 mos., as her husband Ryan entertains their two daughters Emma, 10, and Raelynn, 3, on Saturday, March 13, during a Kansans March protest rally at Governor Laura Kelly’s home in Topeka, KS. About 30 protesters stood vigil outside the Governor’s mansion to raise continued awareness of their lack of payment on their unemployment claim still in an unpaid status with the Kansas Department of Labor. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Of those claimants, there are claimants now who have been evicted, are facing eviction, have had vehicles repossessed, and have their credit card debt maxed out as they attempt to keep their bills paid by using credit cards. The delay in payments has triggered a tsunami of claimant emails and phone calls to their state legislators. One legislative aid said she was so distraught taking phone calls that she started a spread sheet to keep track of them all. The Office Assistant did not wish to disclose her name**, but she did explain what she was trying to do to help claimants and reduce the stress the KDOL payment delays were creating for even the state legislators and their extended staff who were taking thousands of phone calls a day. In response to an email inquiry from HeartKC, the office assistant wrote:

Of the claimants I have, I try to send out information as it comes to us, because KDOL’s second worst failure in all of this is their lack of transparent communication and accountability to their customers. I’m sure you can guess what the typical job description is for a Office Assistant, which does not include doing the work for KDOL. However this year 95% of my days are filled with angry KDOL Claimants. I’ve had people cry to me over the phone, a few have stated they are suicidal due to KDOL’s failures, others are being evicted,  half a dozen are now homeless and living in their cars, and still more are left with nothing from their nest eggs.

Some legislators, like Mari-Lynn Poskin, started reaching out to claimants at the weekly Capitol protests, even those who are not in her own district in order to help reduce the overwhelming numbers of claimants who can’t get callbacks from KDOL to get their claim problems resolved. Many claims were erroneously flagged with fraud, other claims have gone unpaid due to computer glitches that can only be removed if the claimant calls in to a KDOL representative and asks to have their claims examined by hand. Some claims just had to be manually “pushed through” because the computer system is so broken it doesn’t function predictably.

JoAnn Ward, left, of Wichita, came up to the state Capitol in Topeka on two separate Fridays to join Kansans March protesters on the Capitol steps. Ward spoke with Representative Mari-Lynn Poskin, right, about Ward’s employment rights concerns. With Poskin’s help, Ward finally got some of her unemployment claim paid and the rest is pending payment soon.
©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC
Newly-elected Kansas District 20 state representative Mari-Lynn Poskin of Overland Park, KS, said she began helping unemployed Kansas workers outside her district with their KDOL claims if they had exhausted their other options. Poskin said her empathy comes from her days as a single parent. “Sometimes I just needed a gallon of milk and I couldn’t swing it,” Poskin admitted. “Watered down 2% does not fool any kid anywhere,” she added. She is holding a photograph of her blended family that includes herself, her husband and their seven children. “I’ve been there. I know what this feels like,” Poskin said. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Ashley said she has faithfully filled out the online weekly claim form and that she has been continually reassured that everything is fine with her claim – to just wait and she will be paid.

“If somebody tells you something is going to happen and it doesn’t that’s the definition of a lie,” she said.

Ryan and Ashley Osterhaus and their three children Alec, 8 mos., RaeLynn, 3, and Emma, 10, stood with Kansans March protesters last Saturday in front of Governor Laura Kelly’s home in Topeka, KS. Ashley’s PUA federal extended benefits unemployment claim hasn’t been paid since December 2020 in spite of Kansas Department of Labor representatives telling her every week that there is nothing wrong with her claim and she will receive payment. ©2021 Peggy Bair/HeartKC

“I just want the truth, Ashley said. “We keep getting these things full of false hope. We get all excited – oh, the money’s gonna come, they are going to start out on THIS day or on the [KDOL] website, it says, ‘If you haven’t received payment after 7 days, call’ – well, how does that work for 11 weeks?”

“If we aren’t going to get help, just tell us now – rip the bandaid off and tell me now so we can try to figure out what we are going to do next,” she said. “It’s just all the empty promises and the false hope. It’s just too much. How do we plan for that life? We don’t ever get real answers and the answers we do get, they are lies.”

Ashley said that what she’s sees is missing from Governor Kelly’s news conferences is: “Empathy. That she dealing with real people and not just numbers. She sounds robotic. We’re real people. We need help.”

As to whether she thinks these efforts have worked, Ashley said, “I’d like to say yeah but I think there are so many people sending so many emails.”

Ashley said she tries to understand what is going on is effecting everyone in new ways. “I understand the world changes and there’s a ‘new norm’. Even if the new norm means I can only work part time because of everything, then I’ll accept that.” 

In the meantime, though, the Osterhaus family continues to be one of the tens of thousands of Kansas worker households who are suffering increasing losses due to weeks and even months of non-payment from the main agency in Kansas that was designed to be an emergency safety net. A combination of a decades-old computer and software system and an overwhelming number of claims files during the pandemic and $600 million lost to fraudsters in Kansas alone, were contributing factors to the burdened KDOL agency.

Governor Laura Kelly announced last week that KDOL was adding even more claims representatives to help clear the continued backlog of claims for people in the various programs that were providing funds from the three pandemic relief packages passed.

The present hardware and software system was a like a broken barge to begin with. Without a lot of pressure on it, it didn’t appear to need much repair. But when it attempted to navigate against the storm of the pandemic and became overloaded with passengers, it came apart. Patching it back together has been like trying to steer a ship through the storm and build it at the same time. It keeps sinking and throwing its passengers off into the water again.

HeartKC reached out to 2021 on Wednesday, March 17 with the question:

Why would it be that there are PUA claims with no issues which have gone unpaid for this many weeks? What would be the specific reasons for this?

KDOL Communications answer:

In answer to your question, in general, that would not be the case. Individual claims would have to be examined to determine what issue(s) might exist that prevent payments.  One possibility is that the claimant has a non-monetary issue for which they have uploaded forms and an adjudication of that issue is pending adjudication.

Ashley Osterhaus continues to await answers from KDOL about her claim. The recently passed American Rescue Plan would extend her PUA benefits through September 6, 2021.

“I want everybody to have the help that they deserve,” Ashley said. “It’s not like – with our family – that we’ve grown up on the system and abused it or anything like that. I’ve worked for years. I’m just not able to work currently.” 

Kansans March protesters braved some rain and cold to gather outside Governor Laura Kelly’s mansion Saturday, March 13, in Topeka, KS. The peaceful protests have been held every week for a month – previously at the state capitol building in Topeka – to draw attention to the rising financial crisis facing unpaid unemployment claims due to Kansas workers. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

**HeartKC protects the identity of some anonymous sources where it is requested. This source’s name is known to HeartKC.

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.

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