Since filing for unemployment in October 2020, Cayla Lawrence hasn't received any benefits from the Kansas Department of Labor. Lawrence qualifies for unemployment but has faced difficulties in getting in contact with the department for answers. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

The system at the Kansas Department of Labor that processes unemployment claims dates back to the 1970s — before the birth of the World Wide Web, the founding of Google and the launching of Internet Explorer.

That same mainframe is still in place more than 40 years later — and it’s causing frustration and headaches for thousands of unemployed Kansans like Jacob Gill, 37, of Cherryvale, Kansas. After filing for unemployment in July, Gill said it’s been common for his payments to arrive late. 

“I couldn’t pay my bills on time,” he said, which caused his credit score to dip. “I also incurred late fees on all of my bills, putting my family in a financial strain. It caused me to go from middle class to lower class.”

Since the pandemic began causing unemployment to spike last year, the Kansas Department of Labor’s decades-old unemployment system has struggled to keep up with the thousands of claims filed on a weekly basis, causing case backlogs, site glitches and delays in sending Kansans their unemployment payments

The Beacon asked the Kansas Department of Labor for the number of times the unemployment site has crashed in the past year, but did not get a response. Instead, they issued a statement:

“The KDOL website does crash, we are transparent about this when it happens. Website and system issues are what happens to an overwhelmed, antiquated system. This is why the modernization plan is critical moving forward,” wrote Jerry Grasso, department communications director.

While efforts to modernize the department’s unemployment systems were underway at the start of last year, the pandemic interrupted those plans, further underscoring the weaknesses in Kansas’ aging system and the necessity of updating it. 

Now, the department has found itself in a position of responding to a historically high volume of unemployment claims using a system that hasn’t been overhauled since the 1970s

“This has shown us we obviously can’t be in this position again,” said Brett Flachsbarth, deputy secretary at the Kansas Department of Labor. “Quite simply, we ran out of time.”

Michele Evermore of the National Employment Law Project said the pandemic has highlighted the necessity of updated unemployment systems that can respond efficiently in times of crisis. In addition to outdated systems, Evermore said understaffing and underfunding from the federal government has further weakened the ability of states like Kansas to process unemployment claims.

“I honestly don’t know a state where the system didn’t crash at one point,” she said. “That’s just not acceptable; unemployment insurance is supposed to be there when there’s a crisis. If it fails in a crisis, then it’s completely failing its mission.”

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‘Sending people on a wild goose chase’

The last time the Kansas Department of Labor updated its unemployment system was between 2003 and 2011. Updates included a new case management program. But those efforts were cut short in 2011, leaving the department on its decades old mainframe. 

The Kansas Department of Labor made modernization a priority at the outset of Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration in 2019, Flachsbarth said. It began working on a feasibility study to evaluate different solutions and budget options. In 2019, Flachsbarth and other department members visited several states that had modernized their systems to evaluate their efforts. 

The department wanted to put itself in as best a position as possible when the next recession hit, Flachsbarth said. Then, without warning, it did. 

“You typically have a little bit of a lead up period where you can start to see a decline in economic conditions. And there’s a little bit of, you know, warning, so to speak,” he said. “The switch on this was flipped overnight.”

From the week ending March 14 to March 21, initial unemployment claims jumped from 1,820 to 23,925. Faced with historic levels of unemployment, modernization plans stalled as the department scrambled to respond to and process claims. But continuing to operate on an aging mainframe has become an obstacle in and of itself when responding to the pandemic, as the department has faced a backlog of claims and Kansans face delays in receiving their unemployment. 

According to a letter to the Kansas Special Committee on Economic Recovery addressing unemployment, the department had a backlog of 5,300 regular unemployment claims as of Dec. 6, 2020. 

“Those are the types of issues you’re going to see when you do have a less responsive, older system that doesn’t provide the type of customer focus features that a more modernized system would have,” Flachsbarth said of the delayed payments. 

Last summer, the Department of Labor hired more staff and contractors to reduce its backlog of claims. The week of Thanksgiving, more than 100 staff worked to address the backlog, according to the department.

“We have dramatically reduced those backlogs, and we continue to put more resources in to try and bring those backlogs down as much as possible,” Flachsbarth said. 

Efforts to respond to the current economic crisis and continue with modernization are now running parallel to each other. Flachsbarth said the department finished the feasibility study and has added staff dedicated to modernization efforts and fleshing out the strategic plan. 

But without fully modernizing, newer technologies are tangling with the old, creating a system that Flachsbarth said is not very agile or flexible. That lack of agility was especially difficult when implementing the pandemic assistance programs authorized by the federal government, like the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for gig workers. 

Kansas is far from the only state to have an outdated unemployment system. According to a study from the Brookings Institute on state unemployment, only 20 states have fully modernized their benefits systems, including Missouri. 

But Missouri also struggled to keep up with the spike in unemployment claims in the spring, despite modernizing its unemployment system in 2016 when it launched UInteract. Available 24/7, the program is mobile-friendly and allows people to file claims, check a payment status and even file an appeal. To respond to the high volume of claims, the department expanded the program’s capacity.

Unemployment insurance is supposed to be there when there’s a crisis. If it fails in a crisis, then it’s completely failing its mission.

Michele Evermore, National Employment Law Project

Gigi Guillory, 37, of Kansas City, Missouri, has used both Missouri and Kansas’ unemployment systems during the pandemic. Because she has a combined wage claim, an unemployment claim filed in one state against wages earned in two or more states, Guillory first filed for unemployment in Missouri in March. After exhausting regular unemployment in Missouri, Guillory applied for and started receiving benefits in Kansas in August. 

Guillory said she received her first unemployment payment from Missouri in June, weeks after she first filed. But she’s run into more headaches with Kansas, like the difficulties of reaching an agent over the phone, the site crashing when she tries to file a claim and the site stating she’s received a payment when she hasn’t. 

“This system is very confusing because it’s never accurate,” she said. “… It’s sending people on a wild goose chase on top of not giving them what’s owed to them.”

How other states have handled unemployment

A 2020 report co-authored by Evermore on best practices for modernization recommended the following immediate fixes to improve state unemployment systems: Providing 24/7 access to online and mobile services, making unemployment sites and applications mobile-friendly and using call-back and chat technology to help the unemployed.

Some states have implemented variations of these solutions. In April, New York state partnered with tech companies to improve its unemployment system at a time when unemployment claims skyrocketed. Changes include using Google to create a new unemployment insurance application that allows New Yorkers to apply online from either a phone, laptop or tablet; at the start of the pandemic, New Yorkers applying for unemployment first had to certify their eligibility for benefits through a phone interview with a department staffer. 

Michigan, which has a modernized system, has been among the most successful states responding to the high unemployment caseloads caused by the pandemic. Modification in 2017 allowed the state to adapt to new federal benefits, which made it easier for the state to implement the pandemic unemployment programs authorized by the federal government. The state also waived certain requirements that can lead to a hold on someone’s claim, like the requirement that claimants be actively searching for work.  

Kansas made similar changes; an executive order from Gov. Laura Kelly in March waived the waiting week requirement and the work search requirement for all claimants.

‘A total headache’

After filing for unemployment in September when she lost her job, Cayla Lawrence of Overland Park, Kansas, saw there was an error on her claim. It took weeks of calling the department before an agent said her claim was flagged for fraud. Lawrence, 28, then called the state fraud office, left voicemails and sent emails until an agent contacted her a month ago. 

The agency finally approved Lawrence’s claim earlier this month. But she still hasn’t seen any unemployment benefits since first applying in September. 

“I have more credit card debt than I have in my bank account, and I’m about to start paying my mortgage with a credit card,” she said. “Before then, I had a big chunk of savings. If I was getting unemployment, I would be perfectly fine.”

The strain caused by the pandemic has also impacted the jobs of unemployment agents. As a claims adjudicator at the Kansas Department of Labor, John speaks with Kansans to address issues that arise with their unemployment claims. Throughout the pandemic, his duties have accelerated to keep up with the high volume of claims filed and to address the department’s backlog of claims.

John, who asked to go by first name only because he didn’t want to risk losing his job, said it’s exhausting not having the proper tools to help people. Completing cases and helping claimants has become more difficult by working on the department’s decades-old system.

“We can’t effectively do our job without a system that effectively helps us do our job,” John said. “It’s just like a total headache: having to log off, log back on, and then hope that it works.”

This has shown us we obviously can’t be in this position again.

Brett Flachsbarth, kansas department of labor

Workers like John operate the unemployment system using a series of codes, a testament to the mainframe’s age. John said the system is slow and crashes about three to four times a day, interrupting calls with unemployed Kansans filing claims and slowing down his ability to help claimants. 

“A lot of times when we’re on the phone with claimants, it’s crashing,” John said. “… It is overwhelming the amount of problems we have with it.”

Going beyond modernization

Navigating unemployment can be even more difficult for those who don’t know how to use computers or who don’t have internet access. In addition to filing for unemployment himself, Gill helps his mother-in-law’s boyfriend apply for unemployment in Kansas.

But when Gill tried to file a claim, the unemployment website was unreachable.

“Just last week, it was down once again. I had to file two weeks in a row for him at one time, he has now two weeks’ worth of delay payments coming,” Gill said.

Kansans who want to file an unemployment claim can do so either online or by phone. Since the start of the pandemic, the number of claims filed online sharply increased when compared to the claims filed by phone. 

Evermore from the National Employment Law Project said modernization efforts should go beyond transitioning away from an outdated mainframe and need to center on the experiences of the unemployed people navigating the system. 

“Focus on user experience, that involves reaching out to communities affected and making sure that limited English proficiency people and rural folks and people on the other side of the digital divide can access the system,” Evermore said. 

State unemployment systems face a new challenge of adapting to the extensions in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program authorized by the recently passed COVID-19 relief bill, which allows unemployed Kansans, including gig workers, to continue receiving unemployment benefits for up to 13 weeks and an additional $300 a week. 

Gill doesn’t yet know if he’ll qualify for the extra $300, or if it will come on time. 

“I feel like that we’ve had the ball dropped so bad on us in a time that we need the help,” he said. “You know, none of us asked for any of this.”

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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