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Kansas Sees Surge In Unemployment Benefits Claims Amid Coronavirus Threat

Regal temporarily closed its Warren Theaters in Wichita Tuesday due to the government restrictions on public gatherings related to the coronavirus.
Carla Eckels
Regal temporarily closed its Warren Theaters in Wichita Tuesday due to the government restrictions on public gatherings related to the coronavirus.

The number of Kansans affected by coronavirus-related work disruptions keeps growing.

Restaurants, businesses and city facilities across the state are adjusting to government restrictions to keep the virus from spreading. That means temporary closings, canceled events and reduced business hours — all changes that directly affect employees.

The Kansas Department of Labor is now facing the long-term challenge of dealing with escalating unemployment claims.

“In the short term, we’re just having to do the best we can to keep our heads above water and provide as much service as possible to our fellow Kansans,” says Deputy Secretary Brett Flachsbarth.

The surge of calls to the state agency has steadily increased the past week. Workers who are temporarily sidelined from jobs or working reduced hours want to start the process for unemployment benefits. Employers are asking about required procedures for reducing staff.

Flachsbarth says the agency set up a COVID-19 online resourceto divert traffic from the call center.

“What we’re really trying to do is tackle this situation as best we can, by getting people to understand that they can get most of those services online,” he says.

He says call center employees are dealing with their own difficulties related to the coronavirus such as childcare and health needs. He says the number of reps on duty is fluid on any given day, but overall call center staffing is lower compared to past high call volume periods.

Flachsbarth says they’re considering staggering shifts to meet call demand or bringing in staff within the agency who have call center experience.

“This is going to hit multiple sectors of the economy at one time,” he says.

Years of historically low unemployment claims helped grow the agency’s trust fund to about $990 million. Flachsbarth says it’s enough to meet the increasing demand for benefits.

Kansas lawmakers on Tuesday passed a bill that would:

  • Give unemployed workers 26 weeks of benefits instead of the 16 weeks now allowed
  • Allow workers to start collecting the relief a week earlier than normal
  • Proposed changes would affect those who filed for unemployment benefits from Jan. 1 through April 1

The bill is now headed to Gov. Laura Kelly's desk.

The federal government is considering providing an additional 26 weeks of benefits for workers who exhaust the state allotment and additional administrative funding.

Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Copyright 2020 KMUW | NPR for Wichita

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.