TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly responded to comments Wednesday by a Republican House member who alleged the struggle by the Democratic administration to deliver pandemic unemployment benefits was emblematic of a fundamental lack of management accountability.
In a meeting with House colleagues at the Capitol, Stilwell Rep. Sean Tarwater expressed frustration with officials at the Kansas Department of Labor because they were unable or unwilling to answer his questions.
“They chose to hide and not take ownership and fix the issue. That’s on them,” said Tarwater, who urged the governor to expand the state’s call center capacity because people deserving of jobless aid were losing their cars and going hungry.
Kelly said during a news briefing on COVID-19 there was no escaping frustration felt by Kansans about the 40- or 45-year-old computer network at the Department of Labor that failed to keep pace with legitimate applications for assistance and grapple with the avalanche of fraudulent attempts to gain access to benefits.
“I’m not going to deny that it has been a tough road and that many Kansans have been frustrated by the inadequacy of the system,” the governor said. “In terms of Representative Tarwater, I appreciate the fact that he really wants this Department of Labor system to get up and running better.”
She said it would be useful if Tarwater used his leverage as chairman of the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee to reform one of the nation’s most punitive unemployment laws. The statute bans for five years in Kansas anyone mistakenly or accidently accepting jobless benefits. She said about 7,000 people had been sidelined by the law adopted in 2013. Some of these individuals didn’t know they had been tagged for receiving improper unemployment checks until losing a job in the pandemic, the governor said.
“That has created huge hardship for Kansans. So, if Representative Tarwater is sincere in wanting this to work better then I am open to working with him,” Kelly said.
In the 2020 legislative session, before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in March, the Department of Labor with Kelly’s consent introduced a House bill designed to modify the sanction. The bill would have reduced the punishment for people found to have made false statements to obtain or increase unemployment benefits if those people repaid the state for excess benefits plus penalty and interest.
The governor’s bill was shelved by Tarwater’s committee in the House — leaving Kansas out of step with the majority of states. More than 40 states impose a prohibition of one year or less, depending on repayment of the money and whether the person was a repeat offender.
During a special session of the Legislature last year, Merriam Rep. Jarrod Ousley proposed repealing the lockout law if improper benefits were repaid and sought to waive repayment penalties throughout the pandemic. The House spiked Ousley’s proposals after Tarwater denounced the ideas as a miguided attempt to reward people who ripped off the state.
“This is a bad precedent to reduce it or waive it just because of a disease,” Tarwater said that time. “These people still committed a crime, and they know what the penalty was, and it’s now time to pay the price.”
Kelly said during a news briefing on COVID-19 that fraud-protection software at the Department of Labor installed over the weekend had operated well since engaged early Tuesday.
“The department has blocked more than 601,000 fraudulent login attempts since opening up yesterday morning at 7 a.m.,” Kelly said. “We know that challenges and setbacks at the Department of Labor have been hard on Kansans, but what can’t get lost in all of this is the work that our team at the Department of Labor has done.”
The governor said the labor department had processed 3.9 million claims valued at $2.6 billion during the pandemic.
Kelly also said the state reported 198,000 vaccinations for coronavirus, a figure equivalent to 7% of the state’s population. She said the state expected to receive next week 80,000 doses of vaccine, up from the recent rate of 45,000 units per week.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment said testing revealed 278,900 cases of COVID-19 since March, an increase of about 2,200 since Monday. The state’s fatality total linked to COVID-19 climbed to 3,895, up from the Monday total of 3,809.