Kelly seeks state, federal funding to restore Kansas unemployment trust fund, fix IT system

Labor secretary planning overhaul of computer network

By: - February 22, 2021 6:35 pm
Amber Shultz, secretary of the Kansas Department of Labor, said Kansas was making progress on the unemployment front with the jobless rate dipping to 3.5% in April, a reduction from 3.7% in March. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Amber Shultz, secretary of the Kansas Department of Labor, said Kansas was making progress on the unemployment front with the jobless rate dipping to 3.5% in April, a reduction from 3.7% in March. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly urged the state and federal government Monday to invest in IT infrastructure for delivery of unemployment insurance benefits following years of neglect that left computer systems in Kansas and other states vulnerable to fraud and of being overwhelmed by the volume of claims during the pandemic.

She asked the 2021 Legislature to appropriate $37 million to proceed with an overdue overhaul of the Kansas Department of Labor’s computer system. She sent a letter to Republican and Democratic leaders of the U.S. House and Senate to plea for federal aid to states struggling to upgrade IT networks and in need of long-term assistance for maintenance of the complex systems. She said GOP leaders in the Kansas Legislature didn’t respond to a request to sign similar correspondence forwarded to Kansas’ delegation in Washington, D.C.

Kelly, who has led the state through health and economic fallout from COVID-19, spoke directly to jobless Kansans during a news conference at the Capitol about the necessity of resolving computer problems at Department of Labor. She also said she would fight an effort in the GOP-led Legislature to slash the number of weeks Kansans were eligible for unemployment.

“Right now, we need to support our unemployed Kansans in every way possible. We cannot make it more difficult for them to access the benefits they need to keep a roof over their head, their lights on and feed their families,” Kelly said. “I know the events of this past year have seemed overwhelming, frustrating and downright unfair. I hear you and I’m doing everything in my power to fix things now and ensure that never again do Kansans experience these obstacles to help.”

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said the slow reaction of Gov. Laura Kelly to evidence of fraudulent applications for unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in improper payments. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kelly said recent security adjustments stopped 5 million bot attacks and fraudulent attempts to log onto the state’s unemployment system in the past three weeks. If successful, she said, those attempts to breach the labor department’s system could have cost taxpayers billions of dollars. The governor said she had no estimate on the amount of fraudulent payments that made their way to crooks since March during the pandemic.

The governor also said Congress could assist states by helping replenish dwindling unemployment trust funds hammered by COVID-19. Otherwise, responsibility for solidifying the trust fund would fall to the state’s businesses.

“That’s what we’re up against,” Kelly said. “A once-in-a-century crisis. Curve balls from federal partners instead of coordination and help. Stone age computer technology. And lawmakers, in spite of everything Kansans have gone through this past year, want to further limit our ability to help people.”

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Republican from Wichita, said the governor’s delay in implementing anti-fraud measures amid the pandemic cost the state “hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent unemployment payments.”

Amber Shultz, acting secretary of the state labor department, said Kelly moved after taking office in 2019 to instruct the agency to develop a plan for modernizing the unemployment computer system. It had been installed around the time Elvis Presley died in 1977, but was updated in fits and starts over the years. A $47 million upgrade authorized by Democratic Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson was summarily dropped in 2011 by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, she said.

The department was able to handle demand during the period of historically low unemployment prior to the pandemic. However, COVID-19 threw thousands of Kansans out of work and the influx of jobless claims buried the department. The creation of three new federal unemployment programs related to the coronavirus added to the state’s IT challenge of funneling checks to the jobless in Kansas.

“When the pandemic struck modernization was put on hold and we pivoted to focus our resources to stabilizing the current system,” Shultz said. “Since then, Governor Kelly has continued to support the agency’s efforts to modernize and shares our goal of moving forward aggressively now that the systems have been largely stabilized.”

She said a feasibility study needed to advance the massive computer system overhaul would need to be completed before release of a request for proposals to IT companies. She said the agency would work to reduce a standard three- to five-year timeline for transitioning to a new system.

Meanwhile, Kelly launched the redesigned KANSASWORKS.com website Monday expected to make it easier for employers and job seekers to find services online. The changes came after consideration of user feedback and evaluation of needs of Kansans looking for careers with hiring businesses.

“The new KANSASWORKS.com is a much improved, easier-to-use service to help Kansans seeking a job connect with employers across the state,” Kelly said. “With the help of our partners, we have created a modern, effective tool to address the needs of our state’s workforce and our business community to spur our economic recovery statewide.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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