A special committee overseeing how the state spends federal COVID relief money recommended putting $11 million toward paying for increased call center staffing at the Department of Labor.
The panel – made up of leading lawmakers and members from the private sector – on Thursday agreed to put $11 million toward helping the agency respond to the flood of calls it has received during the pandemic.
There are now about 600 people handling calls and generally helping Kansans get their benefits although that number fluctuates.
The expense still needs to be approved by the state Finance Council, which is made up of leading lawmakers.
The agency had sought $22 million in addition to the $39 million it has already spent since last year trying to respond to unemployment calls after businesses were shut down when the pandemic swept into the state.
“The goal and intent here is to have the current level of resources available for a longer period of time,” said Deputy Labor Secretary Peter Brady.
“If additional funding is not identified, we’ll have to start rolling off resources relatively quickly,” Brady said.
“We’re getting closer to the point where if additional funds aren’t made available we’ll have to start rolling down those resources pretty significantly.”
The executive committee of the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas Taskforce instead approved $11 million for the department.
The $22 million, including $2 million for information technology, would have gotten the agency through the end of October as it emerges from the increased call load that occurred in the aftermath ofg the pandemic.
But Senate President Ty Masterson recommended going with the $11 million, saying he’s struggling to understand why the agency needs $5.5 million a month.
The $11 million will get the agency through the end of August when the committee will be expecting a follow-up report.
“They need a call center, I just don’t know the extent that they need it,” Masterson said.
“I haven’t been given enough information to justify it,” he said. “That’s my job, to be fiduciarily responsible to the taxpayer. Correct?”
Lt. Gov. David Toland, who chairs the task force’s executive committee, warned that the state should be careful not to leave the agency in a bind.
“We’ve come a very long way at the Department of Labor. We’re not out of the woods,” Toland said.
“We can’t step away from these services now without a negative impact on claimants and on Kansas businesses,” Toland said.
At one point, officials said the agency had been receiving 1.7 million calls a day although that numbers has dropped substantially since then.
The most recent data from the Labor Department shows that the agency is fielding about 28,500 calls a day for the week of July 12, down from about 34,600 calls a week earlier.
Back at the end of March, the agency was handling about 176,000 calls a day and that number has been gradually declining since.
The committee did not consider other proposals presented previously for spending $1.3 million on a lottery to encourage vaccines and $20 million on aid for townships were previously excluded from federal COVID relief funding.