Jobless-claims backlog shrinks

STERLING — A U.S. Senate filibuster this summer caused a backlog of thousands of applications for unemployment benefits and extreme delays at a state call center, according to Kansas Department of Labor Secretary Jim Garner.

The department is close to fixing the problems, which will be a relief to unemployed Kansas residents and labor department employees, he said.

The backlog began when a federal extension of unemployment benefits ended June 2 and the U.S. Senate began a filibuster that lasted until another extension was approved July 23. By that time, a backlog of about 15,000 applications had stacked up in Kansas.

The benefits were delayed for another month because the department had to reprogram its computer system to reflect updated guidelines. And the applications had to be checked to ensure people seeking benefits still were unemployed.

The state finally began processing the checks on Aug. 23, as 300 to 400 more applications arrived every day.

Garner said some labor department employees were transferred from the call center to help process the application backlog, leading to long delays for people trying to contact the call center.

Michael McCray, 58, who was laid off from Topeka's Josten yearbook plant, said he started calling in early August to inquire about his unemployment benefits. All he heard was an automated message that eventually hung up on him.

Sometimes he called 40 or 50 times a day.

"Hang up, redial," he said. "Hang up, redial. Sometimes, I almost want to throw the phone, but there's nothing constructive about that."

About a week and a half ago, he said, a labor department employee left a message on his home answering machine telling him he had exhausted his extensions and wasn't eligible for any more unemployment benefits.

Garner said unemployed Kansans who were trying to reach the call center "have every right to be frustrated."

The labor department began mandatory overtime for employees in August and September to deal with the application backlog. The call center hired 24 employees, but it takes three weeks to train new employees about the complicated unemployment process, Garner said.

The wait time for calls is down to about 19 minutes, Garner said, compared with more than 35 minutes a few weeks ago. And the call center is now able to answer about 8,000 calls a week, compared with about 5,500 a few weeks ago.

While Garner finally is able relax, he maintains the Senate filibuster caused problems for thousands of Kansans and his department.

"Filibusters," he said, "have consequences."