TOPEKA — Information technology troubleshooter Amber Shultz answered a unanimous Senate confirmation vote by taking the oath of office Friday as secretary of a Kansas Department of Labor roiled by complaints from people and businesses financially hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shultz and Gov. Laura Kelly acknowledged hardships experienced by Kansans since the coronavirus descended on the state more than a year ago. The challenge was due to an unprecedented surge in unemployment as the pandemic closed portions of the economy. In addition, the Department of Labor’s computer system — not replaced for decades — cracked under the load of so many claimants.
Unemployment has fallen to a level comparable to rates before the pandemic and the 2021 Legislature authorized expenditure of about $40 million to modernize the labor department’s IT network to prevent processing disaster in the future.
“We still have a heavy lift before us,” Shultz said during a ceremony at the Capitol with family and colleagues. “We continue to stabilize our systems. We are going to secure success by engaging stakeholders to shape an agency that Kansans deserve. I am eager and ready to address and overcome these challenges.”
She was confirmed 40-0 to become one of four Kelly Cabinet appointees to earn a unanimous Senate vote.
Kelly said the Department of Labor faced “unprecedented challenges” during a pandemic that factored in the death of 4,953 Kansans, hospitalized nearly 10,000 people and infected more than 305,000 statewide. The avalanche of unemployment claims derailed the antiquated computer system and delayed benefits, she said.
“Amber is a dynamic leader,” the governor said. “She immediately took steps to insure Kansans get unemployment now and in the future.”
Kelly said a nationwide, months-long search led to Shultz, who was working in the IT realm for the city of Lawrence and previously was employed by Johnson County, Jackson County, Mo., and the city of Topeka.
Individuals who remain upset with the Department of Labor’s struggles plan a noon Saturday rally at Cedar Crest, the governor’s residence in Topeka.
Organizer Cassandra Dickerson, an Olathe resident who works with the group Kansans March, said thousands of people had been denied benefits while out of work. She said she recently received payment of jobless benefits that should have arrived between late December and late March.
“This was a blessing after four months of not being paid,” said Dickerson, who called for more transparency at the labor department. “This is about righting a wrong.”