The Unseen Suffering of the COVID Crisis
Like a fire that ravages across a forest, COVID-19 sucked the oxygen out of the lives of millions of Americans in 2020 – some literally – others surviving the health crisis but tumbling down in a slow, insidious spiral of material and financial loss.
It is below the din of the headlines touting the record-breaking GNP numbers and “healing in the job market” that those hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic still suffer in silence among the debris and ashes of a “new normal.”
For those who did not lose anything in 2020, it may be unknown that the pandemic decimated a wide swath of businesses and individuals. The effects have left deep evidence of financial scars as layers of protection were peeled off for millions whose insulation was not thick enough to ward off the damage.
Kansas workers and citizens – still reeling from losses even a year later – are facing long term recovery. Many of the losses are due to the failure of the Kansas Department of Labor to distribute the promised federal funding that literally sits in an account waiting for approval from KDOL whose task is it to transfer the money into account of the claimants.
The backstory is that, as the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic bore down in 2020, the U.S. Congress attempted to forestall the financial losses by passing the CARES Act, a massive pandemic relief funding bill that, last spring, poured billions into businesses and sent out money to individuals through stimulus payments, in addition to shoring up state unemployment funds. This Act is in accordance with U.S. emergency provisions for unemployment programs.
The reality inside effected American households is one that contains a silence of suffering that doesn’t make the splashy headlines. The discussion among claimants on social media is one of increasing levels of frustration and desperation but combined with guilt and shame of needing any assistance in the first place.
Amanda Rich of Topeka spoke recently – after months of suffering in relative silence – of the losses that have been incurred by her family.
Amanda and her husband, David Bentley and Amanda’s daughter, Serenity, 10, lived in a house in another part of Topeka – a stone’s throw from the KDOL building and the Capitol building – prior to the pandemic. The two adults ran their own businesses of remodeling and landscaping. Rich also did consignment work with her company Rags to Riches.
“We filed for unemployment in August of 2020 dating it back from late February when the lockdown started,” Rich said.
“Both of our claims initially were flagged for fraud. After months of calling, David was able to speak to a PUA agent who was able to get his flag lifted and he was paid a sum of his back pay in around October of 2020. In December, when the PUA program got its extension was the last payment he received,” she said.
The the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known by its acronym, the CARES Act, contains several programs that were designed to help workers of all types stay afloat during the pandemic where their business was impacted. The federal programs designed were given acronyms and each program had initial qualifications for people applying for state unemployment and additional federal pandemic financial relief.
The unique thing about the COVID-19 pandemic economic impact lies in some more complex points. Some people and businesses were devastated by the fallout from the pandemic, while other people and businesses thrived. Businesses like Amazon that focused on home deliveries saw massive growth and profits – while businesses that relied on in-person contact and social gatherings suffered heavily – some even succumbing to business closure and life-altering personal losses.
To prevent such heavy losses, the CARES Act sought to shore up not only unemployed workers in larger companies but also smaller companies and what has been referred to as “gig workers.”
That particular program is called PUA, which stands for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for certain self-employed workers.
Rich applied for the PUA program but she has been unable to get her claim approved despite attempting to work with KDOL for over a year. Her husband also applied and wrestled for months with KDOL over his claim as well – but was paid out money in October of last year. Then, when the second extension occurred in December, KDOL stalled his payments again. He has not been able to reach them through the clogged phone lines to find out why he has not been paid for the past 4 1/2 months of federal pandemic relief funds.
Part of the issue with workers who applied for the PUA program in Kansas is that the process with KDOL about qualifying and getting approved for the programs was riddled with poor communication and uncertain outcomes. For tens of thousands in the PUA program, the backlog was so heavy, they have still not been paid or given an approval as much as a year later. The present backlog for PUA claims is still over 16,000 applicants as of 4/30/21. The following is from the 4/30/21 KDOL press release:
KDOL has attempted to relieve the backlog by adding hundreds of new agents to administer of all the unemployment programs. But adding agents required training that has resulted in apparent inconsistencies and levels of knowledge of the complexities and intricacies of the programs. Different claims representatives put out different information instead of consistent, correct information.
HeartKC monitored one claimant’s phone interactions with KDOL over a monthlong period where four different agents over four phone calls gave out four completely different blocks of information on the same person’s claim. One of the agents was asked why his information was different than the previous agent. The agent laughed and said the other agent wasn’t trained right.
KDOL Communications director Jerry Grasso, when told the same thing – that representative agents were giving out different information – back in February, 2021, said, “Yeah, that’s a problem.”
The effect has been – whether intentional or not – stringing along tens of thousands of workers with uncertainty about the status of their applications. From week to week, they have attempted to comply with the request to “keep applying” for their weekly benefit but they might be paid, or not be paid or be paid for awhile and then stop getting paid. They may or may not be told they have to call a claims representative at KDOL. Calling a claims representative may or may not result in reaching a representative who can resolve any issues that might be interfering with approving the payment.
Kansas state and even U.S. legislators contacted to weigh in on how to help claimants say they are unable to to do anything other than ask a KDOL liaison to prioritize claims when they are contacted by exasperated claimants who have gone weeks or months without money that KDOL owes them. The reason has never been explained. Who exactly is in charge who can do something about the problems is not clear either. Claims representatives are spread out in different offices in Topeka and some unknown number of them work from home – or work for Accenture, an agency.
In House chamber sessions during the discussions over details about the KDOL overhaul bill (HB2196), legislators exchanged barbs about who was responsible for the stress, chaos and losses that constituents are racking up, some legislators like Sean Tarwater declaring that these unemployed need to get back to work sooner or they will be “less sharp” and others, like Mari-Lynn Poskin saying that she is fielding 100 emails a day because many of her colleagues are not responding to their own constituents. The feeling among constituents was one of being the children of divorced parents listening a squabble when all the kids want is for somebody to make dinner.
Unfortunately, on top of the personal shame or guilt from needing assistance, there have been conflicts among Americans overall when it comes to doling out unemployment assistance money to individuals. Federal funding like for relief programs is sometimes spoken of in terms of being a “hand out” paid in a manner of welfare payments to people who are”too lazy to go find work.” In fact, though, the benefit of providing money to citizens like this is to shore up the economy as a whole.
Just regarding stimulus payments, for instance, in a statement contained in a Working Paper published in Aug. 2020 by the NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH:
“That additional one-time payments to households mainly stabilize aggregate demand by spurring consumption and reducing household debt. The latter should increase the resilience of the financial system and help reduce the risk of future financial crises.”
The Kansas Department of Labor is tasked with distributing the CARES Act pandemic relief funds, though, to unemployed citizens. Further extensions of the original CAREs Act were signed into law on Dec. 27, 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) and March 11, 2021, the American Rescue Plan (ARP).
The Riches, like tens of thousands of Kansans, were caught in a huge backlog of unresolved claims. The Kansas Department of Labor, unprepared for the heavier caseload, delayed payment to tens of thousands of Kansans for weeks and months. Of all the programs, PUA was hit with the longest backlog. That was the program that Rich was involved it as a gig worker.
From the records she has kept, Rich explained the history of her efforts:
“I myself have never been paid. It’s been over a year now. During this year, I have spoken to three different fraud specialist, Ronda Kirk being the 1st, Kimi Gardner the 2nd, And Lynette being the third. The 2nd time, when I was contacted by Kimi Gardner, she told me that she had no idea why my claim had ended up in fraud for a 2nd time and although she put it into the system that she was clearing the flag, the flag never lifted. I have been given several excuses as to why my account was flagged. First it was for Identity Verification, then it was for wage investigation due to a job I worked at for a few days in 2020, then it was for documentation. I have tried to help the situation by uploading my self-employment statement, several times I have uploaded copies of my ID and Social Security Card, My IRS paperwork with my Tax ID number, and I also took all of the paperwork that I could find to piece together invoices for our income. Around Christmas I got a call from Lynette in the fraud department who for the third time cleared me from fraud. She told me to call back that following Monday and speak to PUA and let them know I had spoken to her and that I was clear. I already told her I had no luck doing this in the past, but she assured me I would be okay this time. It wasn’t. I called back and there was no sign that I had spoken to anyone.“
The results of the combination of the shutdown of businesses and the uncertainty of working during the pandemic – and the non-payment of federal funds from KDOL – was that, statewide, just for the PUA program (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for gig workers) over 60,000 Kansans at one time got caught in a backlog of non-payment for months. PUA was just one of the four federal programs that were stuck in the KDOL stall but it was the one most devastated by delay.
Claimants were abiding by the requirements of the program by filing a claim each week, as directed, but not receiving payment. Instead, they received conflicting messages on chat screens, in emails, in messages and even letters from KDOL about the status of their claims. They were most often told that if they had a problem – that they did have a problem – to call in to talk to a representative. Claimants reported they called in hundreds of times a day but could not reach a representative.
Claimants began speaking of forming protests and suing the Kansas Department of Labor, filing a class action lawsuit. The protests happened but no attorney, nor the ACLU, has taken up the lawsuit idea.
Eventually, the unemployed, unable to get through the logjam at KDOL, instead turned to their individual legislators to help them get their claims elevated to a priority status in attempts to forestall greater and greater financial pressures that were bearing down on them.
Several claimants interviewed by HeartKC were evicted during this process, although most did not want to speak publicly about what they were going through (their names are known by HeartKC). Several spoke with HeartKC about living in their cars for weeks, one man with his six year old son. Some are still in this position. One claimant, who said she has never been in this position in her life, said she tries to keep moving around all day so the police won’t get on to her about loitering. She gets around town on her bicycle since losing her car as well as her apartment.
Amanda Rich was also reluctant to speak up at first – but after months of failure to get her claim resolved with KDOL, she said she wanted to speak publicly about the damage her family has suffered as a result of KDOL delays in paying out the federal funds that were designated for people like her and her husband.
Bentley said that the money he is owed would help pay for what he needs to get back equipment for the business he was running prior to the pandemic. He’s worn out, though from trying to contact KDOL, he said. His exasperation is apparent as he holds out his hands and says, “What else do they want from me?”
Rather than put her daughter through the temporary arrangement of living in the camper, Rich worked it out with her ex-husband to temporarily take Serenity, 10, this spring until KDOL resolves paying her the pandemic money that she applied for last year. The separation with her daughter has left Rich severely depressed as she has phone call after phone call with KDOL about her claim but is given no date of resolution.
“During this year while waiting for this flag to be lifted, David and I were evicted from our home right after the eviction ban was over because we were behind on rent and couldn’t afford to pay it. We had to move into our small camper that we parked in the back drive of his mother’s house. Then next, I lost my vehicle. Eventually I had to send my 10-year-old daughter to go temporarily stay with her father because I could no longer afford to meet her even basic needs. I have put in countless applications looking for work but have had no calls back. I wouldn’t even know how I would make it to a job right now with no gas money.
“I had been hoping that my thing with KDOL would have been resolved by now so that this would not have had to happen. I was going to find another house to rent with the money from KDOL so that my daughter could stay and just visit as usual with her dad in the summer.
Now, I have to read my daughter stories at night using Facetime and I am not physically present to kiss her goodnight. It is a constant reminder of how the system has failed us and countless others, as well. Every night as I tell my daughter goodnight I try and keep it together and not let my daughter see me cry for her sake so that she doesn’t mistake this as being her fault I can’t afford to have her here.
I have never felt like such a failure. Her birthday is coming up on the 15th of June. I’m hoping and praying I will be able to have her back home by then but KDOL is not making that easy and any hope that I have is wavering.”
Like many others who HeartKC has interviewed for these profile stories, Rich said she at first was asked for her identification documents which she provided several times, then she was asked for her federal tax documents, which she provided, which bear her federal employment identification number that identify her business. She said KDOL told her recently that wasn’t enough and that they then wanted Rich to provide notarized statements from clients who had done business with her. So, Rich had seven different clients meet her at a bank to sign notarized statements to that effect, which she submitted to KDOL.
Then KDOL raised the bar again.
Rich’s support has been her dog Tyson who is her constant companion.
Rich’s focus is get her claim settled with KDOL and get her daughter back home with her. Rich communicates with her daughter daily and reads her bedtime stories via online calls.
When initially contacted about her story, Rich wrote in an email with HeartKC:
“I have a total of $10 in my wallet and David’s and mine savings have long since been depleted. My heart is truly broken and it is so frustrating to know that the outcome of my life can be fixed by the tap of someone’s fingertips, and yet they turn a blind eye to those of us that are suffering. I have contacted several legislatives and so far, it hasn’t really helped. Mari-Lynn Poskin, A KS House Senate, received and email from KDOL about me stating that on March 31st they had contacted me, they said that my identity verification was over and that all my back claims were being processed and my account was now in good standing and functioning correctly. This is all lies and I had to email Mari-Lynn Poskin to let her know that they had not contacted me at all and nothing had changed with my account. I screenshot the email that was sent to Mari-Lynn as proof that they had lied and had done nothing to change the flag on my claim. Every day for the last few weeks I have tried to send a fax to KDOL asking them to fix my account and remove it from fraud so that my back claims can be processed. It’s been over a year now and that to me just seems crazy that this hasn’t been resolved yet.“
On April 26, 2021, Governor Kelly signed into law HB2196 which provides for an overhaul of the Kansas Department of Labor system. That bill creates a 13-member legislative council that “shall examine and recommend changes to the unemployment compensation system” including “examine the process by which an individual files a claim for and receives benefits and any changes made to that process after the effective date of this section.” The council will also conduct an audit of fraudulent claims filed during the period March 15, 2020 through March 31, 2022 “and the response by the department of labor to such fraudulent claims and improper payments during that period.” This audit process is to be made public by September 1, 2022.
The new bill also requires the secretary of labor to “develop a written strategic staffing plan to be implemented whenever there is a substantial increase or a substantial decrease in the number of inquiries or claims for benefits and review of the plan…” This plan is to be provided no later than six months after the first meeting of the council. The council must hold its first meeting within 30 days of the signing of HB2196.
Each and every person profiled for these stories about unemployment took a risk to step out, not just for their own sake but for the sake of the community of people who are struggling through this crisis. When one person stands up and asks a question, they must realize that there are at least a thousand others with the same question. It takes a great amount of courage to be open and stand up in difficult circumstances. HeartKC extends a sincere nod of respect and gratitude for all the people who have been a part of these stories and who continue to support other people going through the same cycles. Change occurs when people communicate even when doing so is difficult.
“Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.” – Maggie Kuhn.
“Why Isn’t ‘The Media’ Covering This?”
Historical information about the reductions to media coverage of local community news:
The Kansas City Star parent company was granted bankruptcy relief in 2020, 14 years after being acquired by the McClatchy family of newspapers. Locally referred to simply as “The Star” – the paper had been a part of a $6.5B acquisition in 2006 ($2B of which was Knight-Ridder debt) before the financial bubble broke in 2007 (despite being widely called the financial crisis of 2008, the financial crisis began in 2007). To the McClatchy family’s credit, they did attempt to hang on as long as possible to pay down the tremendous load of debt on that acquisition. Sadly, bankruptcy was the ultimate solution in 2020 when the hedge fund Chathum Group emerged the winning bidder of McClatchy holdings.
The Kansas City Star by that time was near-death by a thousand tiny (staff) cuts. The staff size is so restricted that a single reporter was recently moved into a position to cover a beat from Wichita to Topeka. Formerly, The Star was so well-staffed that it had zone offices in multiple areas of the Kansas City metro and several reporters in both the Kansas and Missouri state houses as well as national presence in D.C. Since, it has been moved out of its original building at 17th and Grand Ave. and the glass building and now occupies a smaller space downtown away from its historic original offices. Its last physical location was 1601 McGee. The paper is no longer printed in Kansas City – but in Des Moines, IA.
Today, May 10, 2021, the newsroom employees of The Kansas City Star gave notice to publisher Mike Fannin of the intent to form a union.
Small town papers like the author’s home town of Leavenworth also formerly had a full staff. In the late 1990s, there were five editors, several reporters, two photographers, and several in-house producing sections. Through the years since 1999, thought, The Leavenworth Times was acquired by different corporations that morphed into Gannett and Gatehouse Media – corporate newspaper conglomerates who were still cutting staffs in 2020 at the papers they own and run – during one of the most profound global news events of a century – the COVID-19 pandemic. Presently, The Leavenworth Times is down to a staff of one reporter and one editor.
The manner in which these newspapers attempt to keep their pages stocked with stories is by cross-filling pages from the fewer staff reporters they have left from different newspapers – as well as stories from the usual national outlets such Reuters and the Associated Press. It gives the appearance of news articles filling the “news holes” with stories but the stories are from different areas than the local communities these papers actually serve. The cost is much less due to using the same stories to spread among small town papers throughout a region. It’s a bare minimum of effort to keep local newspapers look like they are still operating fully. Of course, the size of the papers is greatly reduced but this happened slowly over the years so that only older readers still know the difference.
The relevance of media coverage to the current set of crisis is that, because of the lack of adequate staffing, there are cracks, even chasms, created where the crux of in-depth stories are not investigated – and the stories therefore go untold. The disadvantage for society is the lack of oversight that journalism would normally provide. Criminal activity does not get uncovered. The reality of people’s lives is unknown. Problems in society go unchecked.
As a result of this gap of coverage, there have been a number of upstart publications in recent times as noted by The Kansas Leadership Center. These publications have attempted to reach into the vacuum – the newly-missing elements of community news that the larger media companies no longer have enough staff to cover.
HeartKC is one of the upstart publications born out of the 2020 pandemic as an attempt to fill in some of the gaps in coverage no longer appearing in publications that formerly would have had enough staff to do such stories. Peggy Stevinson Bair is a former staffer of The Kansas City Star, The Leavenworth Times, The St. Joseph News-Press, The Boulder Daily Camera and The Pueblo Chieftain.
Unfortunately that gap of news coverage is also being filled by citizen journalists or journalism with a political agenda that does not provide scrutiny and fact-based information but, rather, extremist views posing as “the real story.” Citizen journalism can have a positive impact – such as the filming of wrongful criminal actions that have been taking place since wide use of cell phone videos. On the other hand, there are also great hazards involved for pseudo “news” sites where there are no uniform ethics for such writing.
It is a serious oversight issue that American fact-based journalism – long the watchdog for the American citizen – has been under fire from politicians and business interests for whom close scrutiny would not be welcome. Plainly spoken: getting rid of reporters who expose corruption and poor treatment of citizens is something that citizens should find concerning – and demand that newspapers be supported as a critical part of a vibrant democracy.