UPDATED: Davids urges Kelly to do more about Labor Department

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(Updated to include Labor Department staffing changes)

Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids on Wednesday urged Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to do more to ensure that Kansans get unemployment assistance, adding to the increasing number of complaints about the state Labor Department.

Davids was sympathetic to Kelly’s plight, recognizing the agency has been beset by an aging computer system that has crippled efforts to handle claims that flooded the agency when the COVID-19 pandemic swept into the state.

“I’ve heard from thousands of constituents over the past year who have faced difficulty accessing the unemployment benefits owed to them,” Davids wrote in a letter to the governor on Wednesday.

“Many have been unable to file their weekly claims or even speak with a KDOL representative on the phone.

“To make matters worse, numerous cases of fraudulent claims have been filed under the names of innocent Kansans – taking away vital resources from our already overburdened unemployment system.”

Davids recognized the aging IT system and “years of neglect from Gov. Sam Brownback, whose massive budget cuts decimated state agencies.”

She also acknowledged Kelly’s emphasis on modernizing the computer system. The governor is asking the Legislature to approve $37.5 million for upgrades.

However, Davids wants improvement.

“It has been nearly a year since this pandemic began and much more needs to be done to get Kansans the unemployment assistance they need right now.

“We need immediate action to address the problems plaguing KDOL and to get relief into the pockets of Kansans.”

Hours after Davids posted her letter on Twitter, the governor announced changes at the Labor Department to improve customer service.

The Labor Department is adding more than 500 customer service agents to augment the 450 staffers who are already answering calls.

Seventy-seven of those new employees hires will be on board by early next week.

The rest should be trained and prepared to field calls by late March or early April.

Starting this weekend, the agency also will be answering calls on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m.

Seventy-seven of those hires will be able to help in the call center by early next week, KDOL said in a statement.

The rest should be trained and ready by late March or early April.

Davids thanked Kelly in a post on Twitter on Thursday morning.

“Thank you @govlaurakelly for taking this important step to get Kansans the relief they need during these difficult times,” the congresswoman tweeted.

Davids’ letter came less than a week after the Republican congressional delegation admonished the governor in a letter for her handling of the Labor Department.

In a letter sent to the governor last Friday, the Republicans questioned the governor for not using a share of federal coronavirus relief money to upgrade the agency’s computer system.

“While the federal government was able to quickly provide guidelines and deliver funding to state governments, Kansas remained far behind in processing the unemployment benefits to bank accounts,” the letter said.

The letter from the Republicans came days after Kelly joined with Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to ask congressional leadership to include money in the latest coronavirus relief package for money to modernize state labor department computer systems.

The Republican letter was signed by U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall as well as U.S. Reps. Tracey Mann, Jake LaTurner and Ron Estes.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. and Senate President Ty Masterson also signed onto the letter.