A record 160,000 Kansans sought unemployment benefits in the past four weeks; KDOL is adopting a new application system for jobless claims; more than one-third of Kansas House members ask Gov. Laura Kelly for exit strategy from the statewide business clampdown

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TOPEKA — Emergency shutdown of the Kansas economy because of the coronavirus outbreak prompted 160,000 first-time claims for unemployment in the past four weeks that overwhelmed the computer system relied upon to process jobless benefits, officials said Thursday.

The Kansas Department of Labor said a “gating” system for unemployment applicants would be adopted. People with a last name starting with letters A through M are to file on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Individuals with a last name starting with letters N through Z should file on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Saturdays, the system will be open to all to file.

Delia Garcia, secretary of the state Department of Labor, said that five weeks ago — before the pandemic — the agency received 1,800 initial claims for unemployment aid. Here are first-time totals for the subsequent four weeks: 23,000 in the first week, 55,000 in both the second and third weeks, and 30,000 in the fourth week.

“There is a light at the end of this tunnel and we are moving towards it,” Garcia said. “We won’t be done until we have served every Kansan who is entitled to further benefits. Our Department of Labor team is working around the clock to serve our fellow Kansans.”

Gov. Laura Kelly has faced criticism from Republicans in the House and Senate for not addressing information technology shortcomings at the labor department ahead of the pandemic.

During a briefing at the Capitol, she said the mainframe computer relied upon by the Department of Labor to process claims should have been replaced years ago. The governor said the state invested $57 million on computer modernization at the agency from 2003 to 2011, but the 1970s-era mainframe wasn’t replaced. A program to address that central piece of the system was abruptly terminated in 2011 by the Republican administration of Gov. Sam Brownback.

In 2018, Kelly and Garcia said, the Department of Labor initiated a new reform process, but that work wasn’t completed before the pandemic began taking hold in the United States and unemployment claims in Kansas began to escalate.

“None of this history pays the bills of Kansas families in need, but the current crisis does provide an important teachable moment for all elected officials, especially for those responsible for enacting the state budget,” Kelly said. “Government-funded infrastructure is complex and it is expensive.

“We must do a better job of prioritizing these investments before disaster strikes and factoring potential consequences of inaction into the legislative process. Years of severe budget cuts, coupled with political demands to reduce the size of government, have now created tangible consequences at the Department of Labor,” the Democratic governor said.

Health officials said the respiratory disease has been a factor in 80 deaths and the confirmed infection of 1,588 Kansans. Most cases are in Johnson, Wyandotte and Sedgwick counties, but 63 of 105 Kansas counties have been touched by the virus.

Republican dissent

Rep. Paul Waggoner, R-Hutchinson, was among nearly four dozen Kansas House Republicans signing a letter recommending the governor outline a plan based on concrete, objective metrics for lifting commerce and travel restrictions, hobbling the economy from border to border.

The two-page message for the Democratic governor asserted she was unprepared for the crisis, but that wouldn’t excuse her failure to share with Kansans a strategy for reopening businesses compromised by COVID-19.

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“I think it’s fair to say there is a certain frustration with Governor Kelly having not focused at all on the end game of this shutdown,” said Waggoner, a House member representing north Hutchinson and Buhler.

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said the governor’s decision to extend a stay-at-home executive order until May 3 reflected a sense COVID-19 hasn’t peaked in Kansas. The spike in unemployment and accompanying loss of health insurance suggests this is an opportune moment for Kansas lawmakers to expand access to Medicaid, he said.

"Governor Kelly and her team will work alongside legislative leadership in developing a solid plan to re-open the state,“ Sawyer said. ”The plan must include Medicaid expansion, as we have now seen the massive impact of this pandemic and its effect on the uninsured — we can't let this happen again."

Governor’s view

Kelly, who is married to a physician, said expansion of testing would help determine the next steps in Kansas. A two-week decline in the number of people infected is a condition for easing restrictions on commerce and movement, she said.

Her executive orders direct Kansans to stay at home as much as possible, but people have remained free since March 30 to acquire food, medicine and other necessities. Folks can get takeout or drive-up service at restaurants, and the grocery, gas, liquor and firearm retailers remain open.

People entering these businesses are to follow social distancing rules by remaining 6 feet apart and not gathering in clusters larger than 10. Essential employees are allowed to report for work, but many Main Street businesses have been shuttered.

"For all the time we've been spending actually dealing with the health issues related to this virus, we've been very well aware that at some point we need to reopen our economy,“ Kelly said. ”We need to reopen our schools next fall. We will need to reopen our businesses. We'll need to reopen our manufacturing facilities.

”We've understood that from the get-go, and parallel with dealing with the public health crisis, we've also been dealing with how we put the economic recovery in place, what it will look like."

Considerations for a governor are significant because reopening too swiftly could trigger a second spike in COVID-19 and delaying too long could unnecessarily amplify the economic agony.

How should testing be handled? Should positive cases be tracked? What about special limits on individuals with compromised immune systems? Should two-state areas, such as the Kansas City metro, be handled differently? Is it feasible to differentiate among counties with little infection and urban counties hit hard by the virus?

She said the letter from 43 House members didn’t warrant a political response.

"We have a crisis on our hands, and we need to work through these things,“ she said. ”I'm going to continue to focus on fixing the problems that we need to fix and ensuring that Kansans are safe. I welcome all the legislators to come on and work with me."

The letter

The letter dated Tuesday and signed alphabetically by Rep. Tory Marie Arnberger, of Great Bend, and Rep. Kristey Williams, of Augusta, pointed to planning by President Donald Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to switch on the economic engines.

“There is no excuse for the state of Kansas to not be doing the same,” the letter said. “Restarting our Kansas economy requires a plan of action. It will require visionary leaders working together, starting now.”

On Thursday, the White House released guidelines endorsed by Trump for a phased approach to returning the country to a more regular sense of business operations. The recommendations to governors indicate reopening of the economy ought to occur first in places with a strong testing regimen and where evidence of a decline in COVID-19 cases was documented.

The letter from GOP House members to the Kansas governor said people were eager to get back to work and for a return of some measure of normalcy.

“To those who have become unemployed,” the letter said, “they need a much more responsive government that aids them in filing for unemployment and then helps them transition, as fast as possible, back to being employed. Our children and students need to know when they are going back to school.”

The document said the group of Republicans weren’t appealing for lifting of the stay-at-home order without restrictions.

“Absolutely not,” they said. “We are asking for your plan.”

Adult home order

The governor issued an executive order Wednesday evening to bring Kansas adult-care homes in line with other occupational licensing exemptions granted during the pandemic.

The directive requires state agencies working or collaborating with the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services to extend renewal deadlines for any occupational or professional license, certificate or registrations.

“This order will give nursing facilities the latitude to create alternate care sites or designated units to ensure safe care for all residents and support adherence to infection control measures,” said Laura Howard, secretary of KDADS.

More than a dozen coronavirus outbreaks in Kansas have occurred in assisted-living facilities.

Kelly’s latest order also temporarily suspended nonessential fire inspections for new or renewal of KDADS-licensed facilities until 90 days after the state of disaster emergency has been terminated. Fees associated with inspections also were suspended.