Jan. 13—Bryan Porter was watching TV one day in November when he decided to check his phone. He found the email he's been waiting for since March: a response from the Kansas Department of Labor about his unemployment claim.

It was the first communication he received from the agency and it came about eight months late, Porter said. He still hasn't received any payment, but was asked to submit more information.

"I had stopped trying in June, I was so tired of waiting," he said.

Now, Porter and thousands of other Kansans could receive a decision on their unemployment in the coming weeks or a month, said Ryan Wright, special assistant to the acting secretary of labor and former secretary.

Porter is one of about 9,000 Kansans caught in a backlog of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, claims that KDOL said it's now on track to eliminate. The state labor agency has struggled to address an avalanche of claims during the pandemic through its dated technology.

For people like Porter, that meant delaying payment on as many bills as possible. He visited a couple of food pantries last year, which he had never done before, while waiting on unemployment.

Porter, 32, was driving for Grubhub in Wichita when the coronavirus caused shutdowns in March and he had to stop working. Considered part of the "gig" worker economy, he's eligible for PUA, the federal unemployment program that expanded benefits to people who wouldn't traditionally qualify — such as contract workers and the self-employed.

As of Tuesday, 723 people were waiting in the backlog for regular unemployment, according to a KDOL spokesperson. That's down from about 1,700 the week before and about 5,100 in mid-December. For PUA, it stood at 9,073 claims.

At the end of June, backlogs for regular payments and PUA stood at about 25,000 people each.

While the labor department is on track to stamp out the backlog of regular unemployment claims within a week or two, the agency might take a bit longer to address the PUA claims, said Wright. He hoped KDOL could work through those in February.

If people have been waiting in the PUA backlog, it's because KDOL needed more information about their claim, a spokesperson said. Those claimants should have heard from the agency in November, as Porter did. That's when KDOL completed a software update to work with people seeking PUA, according to the spokesperson.

"I hope folks understand, we're not just sitting by on our hands," Wright said. "We have literally doubled the size of the agency."

Last spring, at the beginning of the pandemic, there were about 20 people answering the phones at the state labor department. Today, about 450 people are taking calls.

KDOL considers a claim to be backlogged when its evaluation process takes longer than 21 days. To eliminate the backlog means people applying for unemployment should receive a response within the typical 21-day time frame, Wright said.

Once the agency makes its way through the current excess claims, it doesn't anticipate problems keeping up with new claims or seeing additional back-ups, Wright said.

Bills continue without unemployment

For some unemployed Kansans, delayed PUA payments can mean losing a home.

Last month, Guy Martin moved out of the Topeka apartment he shared with his grandson to live in Branson, Missouri, with family. He said too many months had passed when he couldn't pay the rent.

Martin, 57, applied for PUA benefits in September, when he learned from KDOL that he was eligible. He hasn't received payment since.

"Staying with family is not a bad thing," Martin said. "But they're struggling too. It's hard for them to feed us every day."

In March, when work dried up and businesses closed, Martin lost his construction job in Topeka. He's been unemployed since. However, he picked up occasional contract work when the same employer had gigs available, making him eligible for some PUA benefits.

Luckily, Martin said, his former employer was also his landlord. He allowed him to remain in the apartment for about four months without rent. But Martin knew it couldn't go on much longer, and headed out for Missouri.

"I know the pandemic is gonna eventually be done," he said. "But I don't think we can make it another year like this."

Now he's eager to move back to Kansas because there could be more short-term contract work in Topeka. But he still can't afford the rent there and doesn't have a place to stay anymore.

If he receives back payment for unemployment, Martin said he could find another apartment in Kansas and get back to work.

"The minute that's on my debit card, I'll be back to Topeka as quick as lightning," Martin said.

Phone calls pile up

Elinda Mages once called KDOL 81 times in one day before she reached someone at the agency, she said.

She had been growing anxious about not receiving the unemployment she applied for in early December. Mages, 59, was let go from her job as general manager at the Hilton Garden Inn and convention center in Hays.

While her husband kept his job, the shift in employment has still been a struggle for the couple.

"It's hard when you go from two incomes to one," Mages said. "Your bills don't change. We did have savings but it's not gonna last forever."

They were able to get some December bills deferred, in hopes she would receive unemployment in time to pay January bills. That didn't happen. Now she's waiting to see if it will come by February.

The new stimulus checks, $600 per person, will help in the short term. But Mages said it's still not enough for anyone making minimum wage or facing unemployment.

Wright said the labor department is aware of the problems people have in reaching staff by phone. Some claimants are using an automatic phone dialer to try to get through, but Wright said that's causing more issues.

The auto dialers won't allow a caller to speak with staff, he said. They also create more difficulties for callers who aren't using auto dialers because they jam the system.

The volume of people seeking unemployment still hasn't dipped below Great Recession levels, Wright said.

"We're still operating above that," Wright said. "Folks just need to be patient."

The department has long pointed to its 1970s-era computer system as being unable to handle the unprecedented number of unemployment claims.

Mages said she's heard about the struggles at KDOL, but didn't fully understand until she had to apply for unemployment herself.

"Like most people that have a job, you realize the problems are out there," Mages said. "But you don't pay that much attention until you're faced with having to use the system."

State funding remains healthy

Gov. Laura Kelly previously said the state's unemployment trust fund could run dry by March. In an updated projection, Kansas' fund won't have any issues until at least the summer, Wright said.

A state's unemployment trust fund is built from state taxes on employers and covers the cost of state unemployment benefits. The fund does not pay for federal benefits, such as the additional $300 per week signed into law last month.

Kansas had a healthy trust fund heading into the pandemic, said Wright. The state had almost $1 billion in January 2020, U.S. Department of Labor figures show. As of this week, the trust fund balance was just over $300 million, making a 69.5% drop year-over-year, according to the KDOL spokesperson.

"We need to wait and see what happens with the current COVID spike," Wright said. "But we don't anticipate it becoming insolvent through at least summer at this point."

If the fund does run low, Kansas would borrow money from the federal government to replenish it. Several states already borrow federal money for trust funds, the data from the workforce agencies association shows. Other states placed CARES Act money into trust funds.

"Because our trust fund was in a good place heading into this, if we have to borrow federal money like we did in the Great Recession, we can borrow at little to no interest," Wright said.

Unemployed owed money will get it

Wright said that despite the agency's old technology and troubles eliminating the backlog, it will be better soon.

"We hear people's anger and frustration," he said. "We're just dealing with the sheer volume of what happens."

If someone's claim for unemployment is legitimate and they're eligible, they will receive that money, even if it comes much later than expected, Wright said.

"If they're owed a dollar from this agency, they will get paid that money," he said. "If someone has been waiting since the beginning, they will be owed all that money."

"You won't lose your benefits if you're caught in the backlog."

Porter, the Grubhub driver in Wichita, said that back payments from unemployment would help him pay off expenses he had to defer.

But he can't wait on that to happen either.

He returned to driving again last month and is taking extra precautions, like avoiding visits with his wife's elderly relatives who are at a high risk for complications from COVID-19. He typically helps care for the family but had to put that on pause.

"I did everything they asked me to do," Porter said of applying for unemployment. "I'm either gonna get a check or I'm not."

For more information or to apply for unemployment benefits, visit www.GetKansasBenefits.gov.

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