TOPEKA — The pandemic’s building strength in Kansas exacerbates the threat to public health and further diminishes the survivability of businesses and the availability of good jobs.
It also generates political frustration at the Capitol as hundreds of millions of dollars flow to the unemployed and the state trust fund built by employers to cover these costs rapidly dwindles. It stings more when lawmakers hear anecdotal reports of unemployed Kansans rejecting job offers because it may be possible to earn more in the short term by cashing benefit checks than returning to work.
Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Stilwell Republican, said the Kansas Department of Labor should take action against Kansans who refuse opportunity to get back to work. He encouraged an executive at a Kansas human resource company to turn such people into the state.
“They should stop paying those people when you let them know that because you’ve offered them a job,” Tarwater said. “Instead, we’re just paying out funds that aren’t ours to these people. And it’s going to be on our businesses to replenish this, because our governor isn’t going to stand up for him.”
Sen. Julia Lynn, a Johnson County Republican who chairs an interim House and Senate committee studying how to position the state for economic recovery from COVID-19, said she was disturbed by signs of sloth.
“It’s almost like there’s a — on the part of the job seekers, you know — just a lot of complacency,” she said.
The state’s unemployment rate spiked to 11.9% in April, but has constricted in the past six months to 5.3% in October. That means 80,000 Kansans were unemployed last month, an increase of 33,000 over October 2019 when the state wasn’t being ravaged by a pandemic.
‘Not being lazy’
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat on the Legislature’s coronavirus recovery committee, said decisions by Kansans thrown out of jobs and considering a return to work were nuanced. She said some businesses posed more significant health risks than others and spreading the virus from workplace to home wasn’t an option in some households.
“It’s people having to really do a lot of emotional labor and figure out what is the best job in order to provide for our families, which isn’t just going out and getting some random job where you can get sick, especially when we see a lot of mask mandates that aren’t being followed. Disease is spreading,” Clayton said.
Of the 12 committee members in the room with Clayton, only four were wearing a mask. It was Clayton, two other Democrats and a House Republican battling a serious medical condition. The eight other senators and representatives were Republicans and maskless.
“It’s important for mothers and fathers to stay healthy and not end up putting their kids in quarantine,” said Clayton, who is a participant in the part-time worker economy. “So, these people are not being lazy. They’re being smart and they’re playing the long games for their families. I really do think that we can all work together and find solutions, but I’ve got to be a voice for these folks.”
Wichita Sen. Gene Suellentrop, a Republican skeptic of the Democratic governor’s leadership in the pandemic, said Clayton’s analysis was cause for concern. Kansans who decline jobs to keep unemployment checks flowing are turning their backs on essential workers who stock grocery shelves, deliver fuel to gas stations and perform other important services, he said.
“They expect all this from everyone else. And they themselves won’t do their part. So, I’m not feeling much sympathy for those folks right now,” he said.
A quick summary
Much has happened since March to bring the state to this juncture. The pandemic threw tens of thousands out of work and they quickly overwhelmed the Department of Labor in a quest to obtain unemployment benefits. Exasperating computer woes at the agency delayed payment of claims as Kansas’ jobless rate surged to double digits. There was the temporary school and business shutdown designed to slow spread of COVID-19. Families have suffered both medically and financially. Businesses are struggling. The state began the unexpectedly difficult task of spending $1.2 billion in federal aid. The state’s labor secretary was sacked in June.
New unemployment benefit programs authorized by Congress and President Donald Trump haven’t been easy for states to manage. There’s been an upswing in partisan finger-pointing as a wave of fraudulent jobless claims landed at the Department of Labor. The state’s unemployment rate has fallen for six consecutive months.
At this point, more than 1,400 Kansans with the virus have died. The state is on pace for nearly 500 people to perish in November alone. Kelly revised her statewide mask order in an attempt to gain broader acceptance. Cities and counties are taking steps to limit mass gatherings capable of spreading the virus.
Absent a miracle contraction of COVID-19, the state’s unemployment fund built up by employers to more than $900 million in early 2020 could drop into the red by spring.
Kansas has an opportunity to borrow from the federal government to fill a shortfall, but Kansas employeers will eventually face higher taxes to recharge the fund. That obligation led Republican legislators to convince Kelly of the need to earmark for the trust fund any of the $1.2 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding left at the end-of-year spending deadline.
In an interview, Kelly said the outdated labor department computer system was not set up to handle the crush of applicants nor the sudden addition of new unemployment benefit programs. She said the labor department deserved credit for responding as it has to unprecedented challenges during a global pandemic.
Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican, said he was frustrated Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits made available to people not typically covered by unemployment programs had yet to be paid to Kansas who legitimately qualified. At the same time, he said, the state was allowing an undetermined number of people to claim jobless funds through fraudulent means.
“It’s just irritating knowing that we have people still today, and I’m gonna harp on this until they get paid, PUA applicants since March and April that still have not received a paycheck. Fraudulent claims are being paid above these people,” Hilderbrand said.
Peter Brady, deputy secretary of the state Department of Labor, said the agency had thwarted more than 100,000 attempts to defraud the unemployment system in Kansas.
He said he would be willing to reveal more about the agency’s obstacles and tactics in a closed-door session with legislators, which is expected to occur in December before the joint House and Senate committee working on COVID-19 recovery strategy.
Rep. Tom Burroughs, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, said he had been around the Capitol long enough to know Republican and Democrat legislators and governors shared culpability for information technology problems that persist at the labor department and were the target of GOP critiques.
“There’s enough blame in this room to go around everywhere in reference to the continuity and past administrations,” he said. “We’re attacking everything and not looking at what needs to be done.”