KDOL Collateral Damage

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KDOL Collateral Damage

KDOL Payment Delays Cast Misery on Out of State Unemployed

Peggy Bair

Devin Nightengale and Jessica Meza are watching over their son Brennan, 4, this week as doctors monitor his recovery from a surgery at Children’s Mercy Hospital. He needs a kidney transplant but the timing isn’t quite right and a procedure was needed in the meantime.

“He’s in pretty good spirits at the moment. Just running test trying to figure out why his blood pressure keeps dropping,” Nightengale reported in a text from the hospital on Thursday.

Nightengale’s stress over his child’s health is compounded by financial stress as well as he makes daily failed attempts call in his unemployment claims.

The Missouri resident likely never thought he would be spending so much of his life involved with Kansas, let alone so much time with an agency he had never had to use before – the Kansas Department of Labor. The department owes Nightengale thousands of dollars in pandemic relief money that KDOL is charged with administering on behalf of the U.S. Department of Labor.

“We administer the federal funds,” said Jerry Grasso, Communications Director for KDOL. “A claimant applies, is approved/denied, and paid the US Govt funds by us, based on those federal laws.”

Devin Nightengale of Raytown, MO, is one of thousands of Kansas workers who faces a daily struggle trying to make contact with the Kansas Department of Labor so they will release his federal pandemic unemployment funds to him. Nightengale was among the 6,000 former Sprint workers who were let go by T-Mobile when it merged with Sprint. He was eligible for extended unemployment benefits but has not received anything since March 4, 2021.
©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/ HeartKC

The end game for Nightengale is that he just wants to be paid the federal pandemic relief money that was allocated to qualified unemployed Kansas workers. He relied on the money because it was promised and he qualified for the benefits. Each week has gone by, he has been told “just keep filing your claims” – which he has done. Then out of the blue, his claim was tagged for fraud.

Nightengale has the simple goal of providing for his family until he becomes suitably employed again.

The agency struggled to overcome its own fumbling and missteps in 2020 as it failed to stop payouts of fraudulent claims until hundreds of millions of dollars – both state and federal funds – had been siphoned off by scammers. Additionally, funding for the Kansas Department of Labor technology improvements has made KDOL the neglected, red-headed stepchild under the parentage of Kansas Legislature that had the power to provide the funding the department needed. Partisan arguments and finger-pointing was a common occurrence on the floors of both the House and the Senate this year as lawmakers’ phones rang heavily with pleas from their constituents who were not getting paid.

Just last month, Governor Kelly signed HB2196, (introduced February 1, 2021) after over two months of legislators scrapping over details and with some legislators slinging insults that unemployed workers would become “less sharp” if they received benefits for more extended weeks or that unemployed wouldn’t want to go back to work if they received more money from unemployment. HB2196 is the Kansas legislature’s revamp of the ailing KDOL But the both state and national debates in legislatures over how much money people deserved to receive while suffering losses during the pandemic left unemployed Americans with a feeling of anger mixed with shame that they had found themselves in need of assistance…many for the first time in their lives.

Nightengale has been calling KDOL repeatedly to try and get in to speak to a representative to remove the erroneous fraud tag that is keeping his pandemic relief money from being released to him. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

That debate over how much citizens of the state and the United States as a country appeared differently on the ground where Americans are navigating life realities. Multiple levels of losses are taking place every day – as this one or that one in a House or Senate thought that $600 was too much and $400 would be better – but settled on a lower $300 per week number for a federal pandemic relief addition to unemployed workers.

Ultimately, the whole point of the federal programs like the CARES Act, the Continued Assistance Act – and, most recently, the American Rescue Plan, was designed to bring economic security to Americans and American businesses still struggling to gain footing from 2020’s pandemic disaster. But the programs were also designed to stabilize a wobbling economy.

People with no money don’t spend and businesses don’t get revenue – a crumbling domino effect. The three so-called “CARES Acts” (some struggling recipients have taken to calling them the “I Don’t CARE Acts”) are bi-partisan efforts issuing billions to all the states’ programs, including the states’ departments of labor.

The economic picture painted overall for the country even just this week is widely touted from the White House down to newsrooms as a robust and positive picture, with arrows pointing to record-breaking GNP and a strong stock market. But these numbers are meaningless for the 16.5 million workers still unemployed – 5.6 million of whom are on extended federal pandemic relief benefits. (1) High numbers of vaccines rolling out hasn’t created full reassurance yet, though, and many workers are still skittish about returning too soon to a workforce that was often slow to create safe health spaces for its workers.

As the world slowly seeps into a tenuous recovery from COVID-19 (and if the variants respond to the vaccines), there may be a normal – albeit “new” normal – on the horizon. Like any other young father who lost his job in 2020, Nightengale is anxious to get back to work. But there are reasons he needs to take a cautious tack. His son is on dialysis and will need a kidney transplant soon to survive. Risking COVID exposure before the entire country has had a chance at full vaccination isn’t just about risk for himself – but also his son.

Nightengale is one of the claimants snagged up in the Kansas Department of Labor’s woes that continue to plague Kansas workers. Those who became unemployed in 2020 were allocated additional federal funds each week due to the COVID-19 impact on the workforce. The funds were granted extensions to qualified unemployed workers through Sept. 6, 2021.

But in Kansas, these unemployed Kansas workers encounter daily a laundry list of reasons from KDOL why their claims stop getting paid or are slapped with the ever-puzzling “fraud tag” as they are told by KDOL agents on phone lines or chats. The fraud tag – also known as “nines” – is an often unexplainable death knell for unemployment claims. The designation almost always requires the claimant to call in to speak with a KDOL agent. It takes hundreds of calls to get through the clogged phone lines – if a claimant is even able to reach anyone. Once the claimant finally reaches someone to talk to, they are told repeatedly to upload their ID documents or the call might drop after the claimant has waited an hour or hours just to get a live voice.

Social media pages dedicated to unemployed workers seeking logical answers to the list of problems they encounter, have sprouted up over the past year as thousands of claimants search for answers from each other – seeking the secret handshake that will get them connected with a live voice who will push the right buttons, talk to the right supervisor or wave an IT ticket magic wand that releases not only the hold up on the claims – but will miraculously also result in payment. The calls with a KDOL representative can last for hours to fix problems – and this is after hours of calling to try to get past a busy signal – and more hours waiting on hold.

Worse still, most KDOL workers are working from home taking personal information from claimants without the benefit working in a secure office with supervisors on site, according to one source who contacted HeartKC for these KDOL stories.

“I was hired on a Friday and started to work on a Monday,” said one former KDOL representative hired through a temp agency. She expressed her concerns about the security of the agency under such conditions. “I saw applications lying around all the time,” she said.

For months, KDOL has put out press releases telling the media that hundreds more workers are being hired to handle the backlog of claims and touting the latest numbers of how many claims and how much money has been distributed. But in a closer examination of those releases, the statements contained future tenses and the unwritten facts are that most of the workers would not be as highly trained or knowledgeable as the few who could actually solve problems.

This information from the press releases is met with guffaws by claimants where tens of thousands continue to go unpaid large sums of backpay after repeated attempts to communicate successfully with representatives who give out conflicting information on different days for the same people. One claimant called four times in three weeks and received four different answers – and the claims were still filed wrong, in the wrong amounts, releasing only 1/3 the amount of money that was owed. When a fourth representative was reached and asked “Why did the last claims representative not do this right?” the fourth representative said “Because they aren’t trained right.” ** (This conversation is evidenced by a legal phone recording between KDOL and a claimant – obtained by HeartKC).

Many claimants’ are owed upwards of $12,000 or more from back pay that is just now being released from 2020 or last December’s Continued Assistance Act. People want pursue a class-action lawsuit against KDOL. A Facebook page was started called “Sue KDOL” where attempts to procure a lawyer have been made, even the ACLU. So far no lawyer has taken up the case.

Nightengale never thought he would find himself in such a position as he is now. In fact, even in the first part of 2020, he and Meza had a comfortable life in their little house on a cul de sac in Raytown.

Part way through 2020 is when his nightmare began. Nightengale and his family, like most of the world, had been hunkered down at home in compliance with health directives. It was about to get worse.

“I woke up June 22, 2020, feeling the normal pressures of working from home during the pandemic,” Nightengale said. “All four kids were at home doing virtual learning…and me trying to find peace and quiet to be able to focus on my job.” His job was with Kansas-based Sprint where he was in the sales department.

“With the Sprint and T-Mobile merger looming over us, there were higher expectations for us to perform and be able to show the value we can bring to the new management,” he said. Nightengale said. He said there was this sense, though, that this wasn’t really a merger – but that it was actually an acquisition.

The pending uncertainty with the merger blended with his responsibilities as a parent. With Meza, the couple is raising Jaylan, 10, and Neveah, 8, as well as Brennan, 4, who requires extensive home-medical treatment. Nightengale said that he and other Sprint workers reassured by T-Mobile that there would be no layoffs when the merger took place.

Nightengale got an email that June morning that there was to be an urgent all-staff conference call with mandatory attendance by the entire staff.

“I knew it would be an important call but I had no idea how abruptly my life would change and the aftermath that would unfold,” he said.

In that conference call, T-Mobile laid off Nightengale and everyone else in his department. In total, 6,000 lost their jobs in the Sprint-T-Mobile merger. Spinning out of control elsewhere, a novel pandemic loomed over lockdown households and a newly-panicked workforce worldwide.

“My feelings were a mixture of shock and disbelief and also of not knowing what would happen or how I would provide for my family,” he said. “Texts and calls began to roll in from my other dumbfounded employees, all of us questioning if this was real and what just happened.”

An ill-defined pandemic and sudden loss of financial security weren’t the end of the bad news, though.

Two days after the layoffs, Nightengale and Meza found their son, Brennan, 4, unresponsive in his bed, when they went to wake him that morning. Brennan was rushed to the closest hospital, Research, then to Children’s Mercy. As the boy’s life hung in the balance, a doctor gave them the news that Brennan had suffered a stroke and only had two hours to live.

“But he pulled through,” Nightengale said. “It was rough. But he’s still here.”

Brennan spent the next two months in Children’s Mercy recovering, with his parents taking turns being nearby.

Brennan Nightengale was born with a syndrome called prune belly. He requires daily dialysis while he awaits a kidney transplant. Brennan is, in fact, as of the date of this article publication, back in the hospital for another stop-gap procedure to shore up his ailing kidneys. Getting on the transplant list is the life-saving goal.

Despite the daily pressures and uncertainty Nightengale faces, his parenting style is mild-mannered. He is a parent who moves seamlessly from helping his son Jaylan prepare his Scout materials to assisting his daughter Neveah with dinner prep. He has the calm attentiveness of a man with purpose – and responsibilities. His demeanor is contagious as the two siblings Jaylan and Neveah step into their roles of setting the table for dinner without needing instructions or reminders.

When Brennan had his stroke last June, Meza’s employer was not supportive of allowing her time to be with Brennan at the hospital, she said – and with Devin out of work, she was forced to go into her workplace the moment the lockdown was lifted. Brennan was struggling precariously through a slow recovery in Children’s Mercy. COVID was an ever-present threat for Meza. She said she knew co-workers and customers openly stated they had the virus but came into the workplace anyway.

Fortunately, Meza recently was able to find new employment that allows her to work from home. The couple has had to continue to get by on her income alone. Devin has had no luck reaching anyone with KDOL to help release the funds provided to unemployed Kansas workers from the federal pandemic extension programs.

Dinner at Nightengale and Meza’s household begins with a prayer. The simple meal served on paper plates reflects the family’s frugal lifestyle. Nightengale has not been paid since January by KDOL and his efforts to reach the agency have failed to get through a live operator to assist him. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Because he is a Missourian, Nightengale does not have a Kansas state senator or representative to turn to for help communicating with KDOL. However, newly-elected Kansas state representative Mari-Lynn Poskin has stepped up to assist former Sprint employees and thousands of others.

Poskin said that some people have been getting help with getting paid on their KDOL claims.

“I answer more than 100 emails a day,” Poskin said. “I have been getting some that are finally get paid, but not enough.”

The frustration level has escalated because too many claimants stopped receiving federal extension funds in the first quarter of the year and, at this point, have gone unpaid for weeks and months. The result of the delays has according to phone, text, email and in-person interviews with claimants, caused them to deplete savings, cash in investments and even borrow on credit cards to pay living expenses. When these options ran out, people faced evictions, and turned to selling their possessions or losing their vehicles to repossession. Divorces and child custody loss have resulted as well. **(see following story by HeartKC)

Brennan Nightengale, 4, has struggled to regain his speech fully – but he finds other ways to communicate that divulge his playful nature. ©2021 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

The future continues to be uncertain for Nightengale in his effort to be paid on his federal unemployment extension funds but he has returned to part time at a grocery store to try to have some money coming in until he finds suitable full time employment again.

In the meantime, state representative Poskin has been in touch with Nightengale again and once again, resubmitted Nightengale’s claim for urgent priority review. As of this date, Nightengale has still not resolved his claim or received any of his federal pandemic relief funds from KDOL.

A friend of the family started a gofundme page to help with expenses for Brennan. If you would like to donate to help Brennan, you can find out more:

https://gofund.me/6cb216e2

This is the number to the living donor program: 913-945-6929

(1) Reference: NPR

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.

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