Texas and Missouri Workers Caught in KDOL Pandemic Snag

Texas and Missouri Workers Caught in KDOL Pandemic Snag

Headaches are Greater for Out of State Kansas Workers

Peggy Bair

Susan Thompson Campbell got shocking news in June, 2020, when her job at T-Mobile ended suddenly with a mass conference call.

“Our entire department got dissolved – everybody I know lost their job,” said Campbell. “We were literally told on Friday – ‘No, no, the rumors you heard were wrong, your job is fine.’ Then on Monday, they got us all on conference call and ‘You’re all let go – you all have 90 days – you’ll get severance packages – we’ll have a conference call tomorrow’ – and hung up. And we all went back to work – and everything was gone – wiped from our computers. So, the way they did it – to me – was very shady. And they were just so rude. So, I’m not a big fan of T-Mobile.” Campbell said.

Campbell was one of the Sprint workers who got moved over to T-Mobile when the merger between the two giants occurred. That merger had been in the works for years but it slid through in 2020 finally. The merger’s impact on the workforce cost over 6,000 workers their jobs.

Campbell, who resides in Gladstone, MO, but worked in Kansas, said she got her 2020 unemployment compensation from the Kansas Department of Labor without issues. But with the December 27, 2020 federal extension of the CARES Act, Campbell said, problems started. “It wasn’t until they implemented the PEUC (Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation), that I stopped getting [unemployment benefits].

Campbell’s stress level shot up as the weeks passed with no income, no job prospects and no answers on her claim with the Kansas Department of Labor.

To received unemployment and pandemic relief money for unemployed workers, claimants file each week online with the unemployment website. Claims are supposed to be paid to the claimants each week. However, for a variety of reasons, throughout 2020, KDOL was so understaffed and its system overloaded, money intended to bring relief to Kansas workers was often slow to make it into their accounts. In 2021, despite addition of hundreds of staff, tens of thousands of workers were still struggling through the pandemic aftermath. To make matters worse, the financial relief intended for them either suddenly stopped completely or hit snag after snag.

From the viewpoint of these workers, the Kansas Department of Labor Acting Secretary Ryan Wright appeared – in the eyes of many claimants – to deliver tone-deaf upbeat messages touting the department’s progress but failed to address the unpaid workers’ reality of not receiving the money they depended on for the lives. Press releases that repeatedly emphasized that the department reduction in backlogs and the amount of money that KDOL had paid out each week, failed to acknowledge that tens of thousands of claimants felt strung along with failed promises every week that they would get paid the money they were owed “soon.”

The lack of payments for thousands of Kansas workers resulted in claimants’ cars being repossessed, home evictions, (despite eviction moratoriums) claimants cashing in their investments, using up all their savings and – ultimately turning to high interest borrowing in order to pay their basic life expenses. Food banks have reported that they are receiving record numbers of patrons who have turned to food banks for the first time in their lives.

Some media outlets who were tuned into the KDOL story issues covered rallies or protests and sometimes made individual stories of claimants to emphasize the struggles claimants were having making contact with KDOL representatives who would fix the problem claims. But even media coverage of the issue appeared to have little impact on actually alleviating the problems claimants were having, as the stories often ended with KDOL press release information that followed the KDOL narrative of the story that progress was being made.

One such story – about Tami Burch out of Chanute, KS – even made national headlines in Huffington Post and was picked up by CBS Morning Show. The story morphed into a headline about how women should spend their stimulus checks – and ended with “After CBS News contacted the Kansas Department of Labor, it called Burch and told her it has now filed all of her claims. That now paves the way for her to get the money she is owed.”

But in a follow up conversation with HeartKC after those articles and broadcast ran, Burch said she only got paid about $3000 of what she estimates was over $12,000 she was owed. Her KDOL story began in late 2020.

“So without warning, the payments stopped. Then along with no supplies for my kids and I, I began the rigorous and completely discouraging process of calling KDOL daily. I was on the phone four plus hours a day and didn’t speak to anyone for two months,” Burch said of her situation in a correspondence with HeartKC.

“It started with me running out of benefits and getting transferred from regular to extended [federal CARES Act] benefits,” Burch said in correspondence with HeartKC.

“Somehow I got switched to PUA [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] which I kept filing claims under because I had to have proof I was filing. The last payment I had gotten before a week ago had been on October 3rd. So five and a half months of no payments and no warning that I was going to be denied payments for as long as I did,” she said.

“I have twin ten year olds. They didn’t have Christmas. They played like it was wonderful, all was fine, but you can tell when a child is disappointed. Then, week after week with letting them down with the small things like shoes were too small or needed a new hairbrush. Then came the absence of toilet paper, soap, detergent, trash bags, cleaning supplies, school paper and so forth – it was awful. Couldn’t register or insure my vehicle after January of last year, which is when I had double bilateral open heart surgery,” she added.

“I worked at an assisted living facility and went back for about two weeks in March before they locked down facility and shut down schools. My kids could no longer be in the building and I was a high risk person for covid complications.”

“In December, I got through a few times but not to anyone who could help with any issue I was having. Sometimes I was on hold for six hours just to have my call dropped or transferred to someone that couldn’t help. It was so depressing and I cried a lot. The kids knew I was emotional from the heart attacks anyways,” Burch said.

Even after hundreds of attempts to get connected, the wait on hold with KDOL stretches into hours for claimants who have been told they have to call the department to resolve issues with their pandemic relief claims in order to get their funds released to them.
(image submitted by KDOL claimant)

“I’m done waiting for people to help me. It’s pointless and makes me depressed or angry,” Burch said.

“I couldn’t take it anymore so I got some good advice from a friend and started getting really involved with the people who were suffering. I had a food card so I’d have groceries ready for people in need to pick up from a store in their town or I’d direct people towards others who had beds or a warm place to sit. It’s what got me through this,” Burch said.

During the beginning months of 2020, unemployment fraud had become a very real problem and major talking point throughout all 50 states’ labor departments as billions of dollars were paid out to false claimants from all over the world. Discovery and heightened awareness of these fraudulent actions was addressed more strongly as the December 27 CARES Act extension federal directives called on departments to step up identity verification to combat further fraud attempts.

As a result, however, genuinely deserving Kansas worker claimants were also held up with fraud tags that had to be – and continue to have to be – individually lifted by a separate, understaffed KDOL fraud department.

As 2021 reaches its near-halfway mark, frustrated, workers who had been calling for lawsuits against KDOL for non-payment, realized that no attorneys are willing to take up a class action lawsuit – simply for the Kansas Department of Labor paying slowly or for long delays until claimants give up.

In the Kansas legislature, there was an attempt to make an amendment to a bill that would provide some relief to Kansans who had sustained collateral damage from the months-long payment delays, but disagreements ensued among legislators over how to frame the amendment, how to determine how much damages to pay and how to and who would manage that task. The idea was defeated with some hopes it could be later revived.

For Campbell, as she searched for answers to the problems she was having reaching the Kansas Department of Labor helpline to re-start her pandemic relief unemployment money, she joined the protests of Kansans March – an online Facebook group of people struggling to get paid through KDOL – at several rallies the Capitol in Topeka in March and twice in front of Governor Kelly’s mansion. The group particularly calls upon Governor Kelly to step up and “show some caring” about the plight of the unpaid workers. To date, Kelly has not addressed the group. The group’s leader, Cassandra Dickerson, said she has repeatedly requested an audience with Kelly – she said as recently as two weeks ago from the date of this article – but has not received a response.

Campbell attended several rallies through out March and April, 2021 in an attempt to get her KDOL claims paid. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

On one hand, the Kansas Department of Labor press releases stated that the money from the federal government was getting paid out to people. But the reality did not match for all workers – even workers for whom there was no issue with their claims. Not only were there thousands of workers in the various “phases” not getting paid, the representatives claimants waited hours to try and reach – and who were assisting the claimants, were telling them the opposite of the press releases.

Issues with KDOL plagued by claimants and the department causing frustrating delays in communications and payment to claimants. The original CARES Act in 2020 has been extended twice more since in an attempt to bring financial relief to people who became unemployed due to the pandemic. Frustration boiled over both with claimants and KDOL Representatives.
(image submitted by claimant)
KDOL continually puts out press releases attempting to explain the history of the problems KDOL has been facing for decades due to a failure to modernize the system. (KDOL Communications press release)
The Kansas Department of Labor puts out frequent press releases attempting to explain the nuts and bolts of the alphabet soup of acronyms given to various pandemic relief programs the department administers. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t always match.
(source: KDOL press release)

Like most Kansas workers, Campbell spent hours on the phone attempting to get ahold of claims representatives at KDOL trying to find out why her weekly claims weren’t being paid. The tension was rising with every passing day she was not paid the unemployment money from Kansas and the federal government extension of the CARES Act.

Unable to resolve her claims issues by simply calling, she finally started taping her calls so she could provide proof at some point that it wasn’t her fault that things weren’t working.

On one such call, the claims representative apologized for the problems but as she did, the problem persisted.

Campbell stayed on the line with the representative asking the representative why her claim was not paying out but the press releases from KDOL were stating that a computer reset the week before was declared a success and that claims were paying out. The representative stated that the initial computer reset was successful but it glitched again – which KDOL did not announce to claimants or the press. Campbell then requested to have a to have a supervisor call.

Susan Thompson Campbell speaking with a KDOL representative attempting to find out about her unemployment claim. (submitted with permission from author Susan Thompson Campbell)

After 12 weeks of daily battle on the phone, weekly protests and suffering losses from no income, Campbell said she finally got paid her back weeks that were due to her.

The CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan provides for continued extended benefits from the federal government to help workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic. The Kansas Department of Labor has paid out so slowly and unpredictably for tens of thousands of workers who applied for the programs, that Campbell felt she could no longer risk going through additional weeks of long delays grappling with the beleaguered department.

“I promise I will never (expletive) work in Kansas again,” Campbell said. “I will stay in Missouri.”

Susan Thompson Campbell attended a protest rally February 26, 2021 at the Capitol building in Topeka, KS with the Kansans March group. About 14 people gathered that day to meet with lawmakers and media to make their concerns heard. Most had been waiting for payment on their unemployment claims for weeks and months. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Texas Worker Struggles to Get Paid from KDOL

Out of state Kansas worker Sonya Thompson Richter lives in Texas but worked in Kansas for eight months in 2019. Her job working on wind and solar power structures often take her to different parts of the country for extended periods of time to complete jobs. When the pandemic hit in 2020, like millions of other American workers, Richter became unemployed.

Sonya Thompson Richter fought for her unemployment claim with KDOL for months, resorting to calling legislators who ultimately were able to get her callbacks that resulted in partial payment of the weeks of unemployment owed her by the state of Kansas employer she worked for in 2019. The employer filed the proper paperwork for Richter but her claim was incorrectly tagged as fraud – requiring several calls to get the fraud tag lifted and her claim paid. (submitted photo)

She made a claim with the state of Kansas Department of Labor in January, 2021 that met with obstacle after obstacle. This left Richter running shorter and shorter on funds that she needed to meet her life expenses. The promises of payment and being told to keep filing her claims set her expectations that KDOL intended to pay her. But the amount they owed was piling up into thousands and not forthcoming.

Being out of state made matters worse because Richter had no Kansas state senator or representative to step up to do battle for her with KDOL. Making repeated calls to try to reach a KDOL representative – as claimants are told to do if they don’t received their money – was not working and was taking up all of her time.

Attempting to provide KDOL with what they needed for her claim, Richter complied with multiple requests to submit her identification documents. Her weekly claims continue to go unpaid as she would have to submit her identification documents – yet again.

She finally contacted an attorney who encouraged her to make paper documentation of all of her correspondence and contact with KDOL and send it to KDOL – certified return receipt mail. She contacted the Governor’s office. She contacted the office of the Secretary of Labor, Amber Shultz – in writing – and sent paper copies of every single contact she had made with KDOL and every document the department had requested of her.

Finally, she enlisted the help of Senator Jeff Pittman and Representative Susan Estes, who both took turns stepping in for Richter with KDOL. “Stepping in” involves the legislators making contact with a KDOL legislative liaison to request a callback from a KDOL claims representative who is trained to enough of a degree to completely fix whatever is wrong with a worker’s claim.

Additionally, Richter took a picture of herself with her ID to further verify that it was her since – for reasons no one was able to tell anyone else – her claim had been tagged as fraud. A claim that is tagged as fraud puts the claim under the purview of an understaffed fraud department.

Richter resorted to taking a photo of herself with her drivers license so that KDOL would believe her proof of identity she provided to them multiple times. (submitted photo).

Even so, it took repeated emails and phone calls with KDOL representatives as well as contact from the state senator and representative for Richter to finally get paid at least the bulk of her claim – about $6400. But she is still owed a balance of another $1478. She continues to contact the legislative office assistants – many of whom are overwhelmed with handling calls and emails from unemployment claimants who still have not been paid benefits from the federal extensions in December, 2020 and the March 11, 2021 American Rescue Plan relief packages.

As of press time of this article, Ritcher still awaits the rest of her money – the $1478. She said she’s not giving up until she is completely paid her backpay even though she is working again.

“One lady I talked to said she back-dated my claim and fixed it all a while back,” Richter said. “I believed her and then she told me I had 7 weeks owed and when I got paid it was 10 owed by my calculations. Not to mention the lady I talked to after hours told me that the March 20 online that says it’s still in fraud is a mistake because on their system it was paid. And I don’t believe that.”

Panicked, and Nearly Evicted

Patricia McClain (submitted photo)

Patricia McLain, of Independence, MO, lost her job with a trucking firm in 2020, got COVID herself and suffered through 2020 not only from being sick with COVID but also fighting KDOL for her unemployment money. Her claim with KDOL was expected to be a fairly easy one to apply for and receive – but, like other out of state Kansas workers – she instead encountered weekly promises, delays and repeated failed attempts to reach KDOL representatives.

Like many Americans, McLain started out 2020, with money in the bank and a positive outlook for the future. She had money from the sale of her house – and an intention of buying another house.

Once COVID hit and she lost her job, her plans of buying another house shifted to using up that money to pay her bills and her rent. When that money ran out and there was still nothing forthcoming from KDOL, McLain turned to using her credit cards to pay bills – even her rent.

“I lost everything I had worked for,” McClain said. “Then I was losing my mental stability.”

McLain finally made headway with her unpaid unemployment claim – and federal pandemic relief money – when she got ahold of Senator Jeff Pittman’s office. Pittman’s office agreed to help her even though she was out of state and not his constituent.

After several more weeks and phone calls with KDOL, McLain finally got paid the bulk of her unemployment backpay barely in time to keep her landlord from evicting her. Her landlord had been harassing her in spite of the rent moratorium.

“I was a basket case. I was facing living on the streets,” McLain said.

Like Richter and Thompson, McLain was hustling for work despite filing the unemployment and even before the work search requirements were re-instated. As of April, she had landed another job. But the stress of having to fight with KDOL for weeks-worth of promised backpay took its toll on her emotionally and soured her towards ever working in Kansas again.

After several more weeks of back and forth with KDOL, McLain finally was paid everything she was owed up to date.

“I can’t say enough good things about Jeff Pittman’s office assistant, Sue,” McLain said. “She was always patient and kind with me and I really felt like she was on my side in this.”

Just as she managed to become employed again in the past couple of weeks, though, her new employer, she said, may be facing furloughs due to supply chain issues.

Which puts McLain once again back in the arena with KDOL.

The Kansas Department of Labor last month confirmed Amber Shultz as a permanent Secretary of Labor. Shultz has the experience working with antiquated systems such as the one in Kansas. But she can’t do it alone. There are very few individuals who have the ability to make anything happen with the computer system that is so out of date and there haven’t been parts or service available for it for years. Having success with any kind of fix or reset often has proved to be short lived. Glitches are common, daily occurrences within the KDOL computer system and fixes continually have to be implemented. Sometimes weekend-long “fixes” take place and may or may not actually work.

Additional KDOL staff has slowly been added over first quarter of 2021 in an attempt to alleviate the customer service logjam. It is a logjam that has caused thousands of unemployed workers to spends days, weeks and even months attempting to just reach a claims representative on the phone. Claimants have no other options to resolving their claims except to reach a live representative.

Hundreds of claims representatives work from home handling confidential claimant documents. These representatives – along with representatives who are scattered in offices across the Kansas capital and even other states – are working on unsecured computers and not in the physical presence of supervisors.

A question of vetting claims representatives workers was raised by one former KDOL claims worker** who told HeartKC that she was hired on a Friday in 2020 and went to work on a Monday – with no background check.

The Kansas legislature plowed through disagreements on the House and Senate floors during the 2021 legislative session that began on February 1 laying out a framework and hashing out details in committee hearings and conference committees to finally pulled together a hard-fought bi-partisan bill that largely revamps the beleaguered KDOL. The Governor signed the bill last week.

Replacing the antiquated computers will not be immediate. First, bids must be solicited and scrutinized, then hearings and discussion held about who will get the contract.

This will not solve the immediate problems, though, that tens of thousands of Kansans still face as the world of people – both vaccinated and unvaccinated – tip-toe cautiously back into a “new normal.” A new computer system that has long been sought by Governor Kelly – although it is now funded – won’t be ready until at least the end of 2022. And until the Kansas Department of Labor is able to answer its phones and get its claims representatives completely trained to accurately process the current and backlog of unemployment claims, Kansas workers are caught in a vise grip between an uncertain pandemic landscape and being squeezed back into a workforce under pressure from legislators and businesses anxious to revive economic concerns.

“Cont’d next story”

Note: Of the claimant profiles published by HeartKC during this KDOL series, all but one has been paid most or all of the money KDOL owed them. Some are still pursuing small portions of unpaid balances or continue to be on the federal extension programs, which do not expire until September, 2021. One profiled claimant remains completely unpaid. Claimants who were paid have said that it was their daily or weekly relentless pursuit of their claims, contacting state legislators and the governor’s office that finally lead to their claims being paid. Many claimants whose circumstances HeartKC has monitored and followed who chose not to have their profile stories published – but who still needed assistance – also followed the same path as above. A few claimants HeartKC encountered in the most dire of circumstances – homelessness or evictions – were elevated to emergency status and KDOL did respond to these claimants more quickly. Most claimants being monitored for this series of stories – who were paid – paid it forward by helping another claimant with assistance and support. It is through these efforts that many Kansas workers were able to lift each other up and through the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic personal financial losses. Tens of thousands more are still caught in the cycle of fraud or delayed non-payment that is requiring KDOL claims staff to individually re-assess and re-submit claims that contain processing errors.

Tami Burch shared how she has had to move forward even though she has not received the rest of her payments: she helps encourage others.

“So without warning, the payments stopped. Then along with no supplies for my kids and I, I began the rigorous and completely discouraging process of calling KDOL daily,” she stated. “I was on the phone four-plus hours a day and didn’t speak to anyone for two months. In December, I got through a few times but not to anyone who could help with any issue I was having. Sometimes I was on hold for six hours just to have my call dropped or transferred to someone that couldn’t help. It was so depressing and I cried a lot. The kids knew I was emotional from the heart attacks anyways. I couldn’t take it anymore so I got some good advice from a friend and started getting really involved with the people who were suffering. I had a food card so I’d have groceries ready for people in need to pick up from a store in their town or I’d direct people towards others who had beds or a warm place to sit. It’s what got me through this.

That’s real [expletive], pardon my language, but that’s what it is. Real. Without trying to keep others from being hungry, cold, alone or sad, I don’t know where I would be, mentally. I was so filled with anger at KDOL, our senators that tried to refuse us federal aid, the government for saying the deficit was more important than somebody’s mommy?” Burch said.

“I don’t have all or even near my money,” Burch said. “My claim is supposedly fixed but I am trying not to tie up the lines about the remainder of my money when so many haven’t gotten anything.”

HeartKC will continue to follow up with Burch until she reaches a final resolution on her claim.

**HeartKC has the name of the anonymous KDOL worker.