Frustrated Kansans join in class-action lawsuit against KDOL after months without unemployment benefits

Capitol Bureau

TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT)– Frustrations are reaching a boiling point with Kansas’ unemployment system. 

 A group of Kansans organized to file a class-action lawsuit against the Kansas Department of Labor on Thursday. 

An organizer for the lawsuit, Jo-Anna Wright, sent out a mass email to state and national lawmakers today with the following message:  

“I am writing you on behalf of the thousands of unemployed Kansans who are hurting and struggling thanks to the KDOL’s mishandling of our unemployment benefits. To be honest, we are more than mad. We are livid and the KDOL is pushing us to file a class action lawsuit. Those of us who have not received benefits in weeks are beyond desperate. My fear is that you are going to have a civil war on your hands.” 

Wright posed a question in a Facebook group about joining the class-action lawsuit, and, within a few hours, over 100 Kansans were willing to join the suit. In the email, Wright said she’s been in contact with lawyers, specifically Mark Thierman, a national lawyer who worked on the PUA lawsuit against the state of Nevada.  

“I suggest y’all get your stuff together,” Wright warned in the end of her message.  

The email was sent to several state senators, and president-elect Joe Biden, urging them to listen. This comes as thousands of people are going unpaid for months with cries for help un-answered 

In a closed session, the Kansas Department of Labor met with lawmakers on Monday, to address the numerous unemployment problems and fraud claims plaguing the state.   

Among their plans, a preliminary timeline on the department’s I.T. modernization project to update their outdated computer system. But, the plan doesn’t go into action until 2023, expanding into 2024.  

And lawmakers say the department has a long way to go to get back on track paying out benefits to struggling Kansans.   

 “Getting that backlog taken care of is huge because they’ve been working on it now… For, I can’t remember how long now,” said Rep. Kyle Hoffman, R-Coldwater 

Now, department officials are fighting fraud, identity theft, and a growing pile of unemployment claims.  

According to Gov. Laura Kelly, the department is a step up from where they were a few months ago.  

 “Most people are being taken care of. They’ve gotten their benefits,” Gov. Kelly said during her weekly coronavirus update on Wednesday.  

The governor also spoke about the progress the department has made on their backlog of regular unemployment insurance claims, reducing it to about 5,300, down from about 25,000 in the summer. 

But, right now, the department is averaging about 2300 incoming fraud claims a day in their Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, PUA, program. 

The estimated backlog for PUA stands at 25,000 claimants that are not being paid.  

While lawmakers are getting details on the department’s plans, thousands of Kansans are left waiting for help and getting no answers.  And, some are outraged that they’re getting no money and no response.   

Heather Depriest, mother of three, says she called for several days straight to get a hold of someone about her claim. But, when she finally got an answer, it was too late.  

“Almost 100 phone calls later, got someone on the phone to be told that I was in a new quarter, and I didn’t qualify anymore,” said Depriest. “So, now I’m kind of stuck in limbo, figuring out what I’m supposed to do.”  

We asked the state’s department of labor about the long wait for calls. In an email, a spokesperson for the department responded, “No one is on the phone waiting on hold for hours.”   

However, first-hand accounts from Kansans trying to get help from the department suggest otherwise.   

And when they do get through to a representative, there’s more frustration.   

“They did guide me to a different type of pandemic relief, but I still haven’t heard anything… That was a few weeks ago,” Depriest said. 

Comments on the department’s Facebook page show frustrated claimants, voicing concerns about the phone lines, saying things like “phone lines are always busy” and it’s “impossible” to get through.   

One even calls for the firing of the department’s labor secretary, Ryan Wright, after calling 109 times with no response.  

That’s after the previous labor secretary resigned in June.  

Some of these programs are marked to end soon. So, we asked labor officials what will happen for Kansans that aren’t getting paid. They said those payments will go through, even if the program has ended. But, no answer on when that will be. 

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