February 22, 2021
ICYMI: KANSAS DEMOCRATS CALL ON GOP LEADERSHIP TO STOP PLAYING POLITICS AND SUPPORT STRUGGLING KANSANS
Topeka, KS – Today, after playing politics to fuel their own agenda for weeks, Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature were exposed for refusing to support a federal request for funds.
Instead of working with Governor Kelly to help the Kansas Department of Labor receive federal funds to fast-track IT modernization projects, prepare Kansas for future crises, and provide relief for our unemployment trust funds, Kansas Republicans doubled down to make it harder for Kansans to receive unemployment benefits.
In response, KDP Executive Director Ben Meers issued the following statement:
“When asked to support calling for federal funds to rebuild Kansas’ 40-year-old IT systems, Republican leadership said no. They once again showed that they are more interested in playing politics than doing their jobs. Enough is enough, hardworking Kansans need Republican leaders to end the games and support IT modernization.”
For years, Kansas Republicans undermined the Kansas Department of Labor, leaving it underfunded and unprepared to handle a crisis of the current proportion.
In 2011, Sam Brownback ended needed modernization to bring the Department of Labor into the 21st century. Before the pandemic, Republicans refused to amend Kansas’ draconian policy of banning Kansans for five years for unemployment fraud. Now, instead of finding a solution to help Kansans, Republicans like Rep. Tawater, Speaker Ron Ryckman, Rep. Hawkins and Rep. Finch are making it harder for Kansans to receive unemployment benefits by limiting the number of eligible weeks – despite the current public health and economic crisis.
“The latest from Kansas Republicans proves they are only interested in this topic to exploit it for their own political gain,” said KDP Executive Director Ben Meers. “Instead of helping Kansans, they’re playing games and making it harder for Kansans to get benefits. It’s phony and bad politics – it must stop.”
Read more about Republicans’ failure to put Kansans before politics:
Spirit AeroSystems production worker Michelle Tran was a victim of mass layoffs in March as aircraft manufacturing shuddered under a coronavirus-induced meltdown. This single parent of three children ranging in ages from 10 to 22, including a son with autism, was cast into the social safety net along with more than 200,000 other Kansans deemed nonessential features of the workforce. She sought jobless benefits along with her peers, but her application was red-flagged by the Kansas Department of Labor. The agency concluded she accepted a week of excessive state assistance three years ago when she was last out of work.
Tran said she hadn’t received prior notice of that allegation but pulled money from savings to pay nearly $1,000 in principal and interest. Once the labor department had the money, she said, she was banned from the Kansas program for five years to comply with the nation’s toughest state law penalizing people accused of defrauding the unemployment system. It left her broke and sleeping on a friend’s couch.
“I lost my apartment. I lost my car. No job,” Tran said. “What they’ve done is wrong. How the hell, at a time like this, can you take what little we have?”
The state’s labor department says Tran is among 7,000 people carrying the burden of a five-year fraud ban, and at least 400 of those individuals have filed claims for unemployment assistance amid the pandemic.
Based on a 50-state analysis of unemployment law, the sanction in Kansas is out of step with most states in terms of the duration of penalties for providing false information or failing to disclose part-time income or returning to full-time work while still cashing unemployment checks. More than 40 states punish misconduct with prohibitions of one year or less, although the type of exceptions vary widely depending on repayment of the money or status as a repeat offender.
Kansas House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Republican from Wichita, said he would be loathe to diminish the penalty for anyone perpetrating criminal fraud against the state. He said he would be interested in studying options for creating wiggle room in the statute to deal with nuanced cases in which a person had no intent to defraud the unemployment trust fund.
“There are cases like that,” Hawkins said.
Republican legislators and a powerful business group are pushing a proposal to make it harder for unemployed Kansas workers to get extended benefits, arguing that extra weeks of aid are available even when thousands of jobs remain unfilled.
But the proposal before the GOP-controlled Legislature has sparked a backlash amid the economic uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, and Democrats see it as hurting struggling workers at exactly the wrong time. A key Republican lawmaker conceded Friday that it will be difficult to include the measure in broader legislation designed to overhaul the state’s troubled unemployment system.
A 2013 state law, enacted under then-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, ended a policy of providing up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits to jobless workers and instead tied eligibility for more than 16 weeks of benefits to the unemployment rate. Separate but identical bills before the House and Senate commerce committees require a higher unemployment rate for the extended benefits to kick in.
“In this time right now, that’s probably a pretty tough one to keep in,” said Senate committee Chair Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican.
The 2013 law says that when the state’s average unemployment rate for three months is at least 4.5% but less than 6%, jobless workers can receive up to 20 weeks of benefits, and when the average is 6%, they are eligible for 26 weeks. Both the House bill and the Senate measure would allow 20 weeks of benefits when the unemployment rate averages 5% and 26 weeks when it hits 6%.
House committee Chair Sean Tarwater, a Stilwell Republican, is confident that it will retain the provision in its version of the unemployment bill. That measure would also set up a council to oversee a modernization of the Department of Labor’s unemployment computer system and require the upgrade to be finished by the end of 2022.
“The idea is to get people back into the workplace, as soon as possible,” Tarwater said Friday.
Backers of the change include the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which is especially influential with GOP lawmakers. Supporters said this week that an unemployment rate at or below 5% signals an economy with full employment and one in which businesses have trouble finding people to fill openings.