Four groups want removal from unemployment letter

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Four organizations are asking to be removed from a letter sent by a group of business interests asking the governor to end the state’s participation in supplemental federal unemployment benefits.

Two of the groups contacted — the Auburn-Washburn Unified School District and the Greater Wichita YMCA — said a lower-level employee signed onto the letter without permission. A third didn’t know how it became part of the letter.

Separately, the Lawrence Journal-World acknowledged that one of its employees – a nonjournalist – unintentionally clicked on a mass email to sign onto the letter.

The paper’s editor suggested the email might have been confusing and not clear.

Auburn-Washburn School Board President Tom Bruno and Superintendent Scott McWilliams said in a letter to the governor that the district is not taking a position on whether federal supplemental unemployment benefits should be continued.

“The Board of Education president and the superintendent of schools are the official spokespersons for the school district and neither have taken a position on this topic or given the authority to others to take a position on behalf of the school district.”

The letter went on to say that it would request the Kansas State Council of the Society for Human Resource Management to be removed from the letter that was sent to the governor this week.

Bruno said in a brief interview that a school district employee responded to a mass email but in “no way” indicated it was on behalf of the school district.

Natalie Bright, lobbyist for the human resources group, stood by the letter for which she helped collect signatures.

“We sent out a very clear email requesting anybody who wanted to sign on to our draft letter that says if you want to sign your business onto this letter, click here and she did, she clicked there,” Bright said.

“The whole email says like four times you’re signing your company on,” she said.

“From our vantage point, that’s not on us to police,” Bright said. “We had a lot of other businesses and groups sign on, and I think there are just some organizations that maybe didn’t know the policy or follow it.”

Bright added that the letter would likely be amended to include more signers and at that time the school district would be removed.

The Greater Wichita YMCA said a similar issue occurred within its organization.

“An employee of the Greater Wichita YMCA personally signed a letter from the SHRM organization asking for endorsement of the letter sent to Gov. Laura Kelly regarding federal unemployment benefits in Kansas,” the group said in a statement.

“This employee did not have the authorization to sign on behalf of the association so the Greater Wichita YMCA has formally requested to be removed from the letter.”

A third, Wesley Towers, also asked to be removed from the letter.

Officials at the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which helped organize the letter, said it would readily agree to drop employers from the letter on their request.

“We welcome the opportunity to remove those employers who either have had second thoughts about letting the governor know about their struggle to find workers after being the victim of political intimidation or had internal communications issues,” the chamber said in a statement.

“The focus on the few entities which may have been confused about signing on to the letter amounts to a distraction from the real issue facing Kansas employers — getting employees back in the workforce.”

Meanwhile, the director of the Hutchinson Public Library also said Thursday that he notified the governor’s office that his agency was not supposed to be part of the letter and requested to be removed.

“This sort of came out of left field for us,” Gregg Wamsley said in an interview.

“This is not something that the library endorsed,” he said.

“We don’t advocate as a public library for any political position except occasionally when things are coming up that directly affect libraries.”

On Thursday morning, Chad Lawhorn, publisher and editor of the Lawrence Journal-World, renounced the paper’s listing on the letter on social media.

He called the use of the newspaper’s name in the letter “upsetting and discouraging.”

“I’m the editor and the publisher of the Journal-World and I did not sign any letter, did not authorize anyone to sign a letter and I am not aware that anyone in our organization signed the letter,” Lawhorn posted on Facebook.

“I was never asked to sign the letter and would not have signed the letter if asked. I find it inappropriate. If the Journal-World wanted to take a position on the unemployment benefits, we would have written an editorial. We have not done so.”

Lawhorn would not comment, but acknowledged on Thursday afternoon that a newspaper employee – a nonjournalist – clicked on a link from an email from the human resources group endorsing the letter.

“While the action was unintentional, it still is disappointing,” Lawhorn wrote.

Lawhorn emphasized that the employee was not a journalist and has no connection to the newsroom.

The employee also is not a member of newpaper’s management team and has no authority to speak for the company.

“The employee believed the signature would only list individuals and would not affiliate them with a company,” Lawhorn wrote.

“In reality, the opposite was true. Individual names were not listed. Only company names were listed,” he wrote.

Lawhorn said the  employee was sent what appeared to be a mass email from the Kansas State Council of the Society for Human Resource Management.

He quoted from the email which said it  extended “the opportunity for your company to join KSSHRM in our our efforts by adding your company name to the quickly-growing number of supporters.

“Another part of the letter — the final call to action — is less specific about the fact individuals actually would have their company’s name listed rather than their individual name,” he wrote.

“That final call to action says: ‘If your company is struggling with the lack of available workers, I invite you to join your voice with ours — together we will make a difference.’

“Note, it says ‘your voice,’ not ‘your company’s voice.”

In a letter signed by 181 businesses, chambers of commerce and professional organizations, Kelly is being asked to withdraw from the federal programs that provide additional unemployment benefits.

“We believe this additional benefit was an important short-term solution to help individuals who were adversely impacted at the start of the pandemic,” the letter says.

“However, 13 months later, many employers are finding it nearly impossible to fully staff their business which impacts the supply chain and timely delivery of goods and
services,” the letter stated.

The letter was signed by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Associated General Contractors of Kansas, Associated Wholesale Grocers, the Kansas Farm Bureau, the Lawrence Journal-World, the Auburn-Washburn Unified School District, as well as chambers of commerce in Olathe and Lenexa, among many others.

The governor’s office declined to comment on the letter and the ensuing controversy.

The group said in its letter that there may be other barriers for Kansans trying to enter the workforce.

It asked the governor to direct any available dollars toward incentives that would encourage Kansans to return to work, including signing bonuses, temporary child care assistance as well as training and retraining initiatives.

Several chambers of commerce in Johnson County signed the letter.

Officials from the Lenexa and Overland Park chambers confirmed signing the letter. They said the letter reflected the needs of their members.

“We’re hearing from our members that they are having a very difficult time finding employees,” said Kevin Walker, senior vice president of public policy for the Overland Park chamber.

“We think this is part of the problem. It is not the only thing that’s causing problems,” he said. “We were interested in having a conversation with the governor about alternatives, which is why we suggested those.”

Walker said the Overland Park chamber suggested other alternatives, such as signing bonuses, child care assistance and training that were included in the letter.

“Those are all tangible things that would help the employee as well as the employer.”

Democratic state Rep. Jason Probst had been critical of the letter on Facebook.

On Thursday morning, he suggested that some business owners might have been confused by the email blasts seeking support of the letter.

“Before you ask a small mom-and-pop business to jump into your political BS, it seems the onus is on those asking to be clear about how that information is going to be used.

“People trying to run businesses and offices often aren’t familiar with the Machiavellian nature of Kansas politics.”