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Kansas City Area Residents Seeking Jobless Benefits Face Busy Phone Lines And Broken Web Sites

Thousands of workers in the Kansas City metro are out of work and face mounting frustrations over applying for jobless benefits in both Kansas and Missouri.
Al Smith
Thousands of workers in the Kansas City metro are out of work and face mounting frustrations over applying for jobless benefits in both Kansas and Missouri.

Officials in Kansas and Missouri struggle to keep up with the unprecedented volume of claims, burdened by their own inadequate infrastructures.

Thousands of metro residents are among the 22 million Americans who have filed for unemployment in the past four weeks. But given the existing limitations of state computer systems and phone lines in both Kansas and Missouri’s Departments of Labor, there are many who are struggling to get their claims processed.

With Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas’s announcement that stay-at-home orders will extend to mid-May, it may be weeks before out-of-work metro residents will find financial relief. Under advisement from health officials, Lucas announced Thursday that the city's stay-at-home orders, originally set to end April 24th, would extend to at least May 15th.

When people file unemployment claims, they’re facing broken websites, busy phone lines and computer systems that aren’t designed to accommodate their specific situations.

That's the case for many small business owners, freelancers, contractors and gig workers. The Departments of Labor in both states are not yet able to process unemployment claims from independent contractors and people who are self-employed, even though the federal government has temporarily extended benefits to those workers during the coronavirus outbreak.

This rule change is a challenge for computer systems in Topeka and Jefferson City that aren’t set up to take in applications from people who don’t have a direct employer.

People who are contractors or otherwise self-employed might be denied benefits prematurely if they apply before the computer system is upgraded. People who newly qualify for these benefits will also have to provide additional documentation, including proof of earnings, to get approved, according to the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations

Neither Kansas nor Missouri has been able to provide a timeline about when their computer systems might be able to process claims from the new group of workers that now qualify for unemployment benefits.

In addition to the significant changes in benefits, the states’ labor departments are overwhelmed by the unprecedented surge in applications and questions about benefits since the coronavirus outbreak started.

Missouri received over 91,000 claims for unemployment during the week that ended April 4 and over 104,000 claims for the week that ended March 29. By comparison, Missouri received 2,700 unemployment applications during the last week of February.

In Kansas, the explosion in claims crashed the Department of Labor’s website and overloaded its phone lines, often with hundreds of thousands of calls in a single day.

Since March 14, more than 160,000 Kansans have filed first-time claims for unemployment benefits. That is a 2,457% increase over the previous month.

Some people say they called hundreds of times before getting through to someone in the department’s call center. Even when they got through, calls often ended in frustration.

Josie Layne was in line for a promotion at Savers, an Olathe thrift store, before she got laid off.

She’s been trying for weeks to get through on the phone to file a claim. Every now and then, someone answers and quickly transfers her to a phone that just rings and rings.

“For 30 minutes then hangs up,” Layne said. “That’s happened to me like 10 times.”

While trying to file online last weekend, Layne said the agency’s website crashed. She checked back the next day but it was still down.

“It doesn’t even pull up,” Layne said. “It just says ‘unavailable’ or something like that.”

The Kansas Department of Labor has quadrupled its call center staff and worked its information technology staff around the clock in a futile attempt to keep pace with the claims and keep the website functioning, said Brett Flachsbarth, deputy secretary and a 15-year veteran of the agency.

In Missouri, the agency’s staff is receiving more than 100,000 phone calls and emails per day, said Anna Hui, secretary of the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

The state is attempting to deal with the demand by transferring workers from other agencies into the labor department temporarily, but those people still have to be trained, according to Hui. The agency is also using automated voice recordings to answer some questions over the phone, she said.

Daniel Glazier, executive director of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, says it’s important that people who are initially denied employment benefits “not give up” on receiving some compensation.

“Don’t try once, get voided and say, ‘Well, I guess I don’t qualify,’ or, ‘I guess it’s not going to work for me,’" Glazier said.

And so while the stay-at-home orders continue, so does the wait for help. The new rules came out just this week, said Glazier, and it will take a while for people to work out who qualifies for benefits and for how long.

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