The Kansas Department of Labor has halved the backlog of residents waiting for their unemployment claims to be settled, Acting Secretary Ryan Wright said in an interview Thursday, with the agency "on track" to wipe out the remaining claims in the coming weeks.


The department is seeking to recover from a tumultuous few months, with the unemployment compensation system overwhelmed with the number of claimants seeking benefits due to economic fallout related to COVID-19.


The fallout resulted in the resignation of Labor Secretary Delia Garcia, with Gov. Laura Kelly vowing to make changes in the department, though she also said Garcia inherited a department that had been "gutted" by former Gov. Sam Brownback.


But Wright, who replaced Garcia in June, said a backlog of 25,000 claims has been reduced by half since August.


KDOL staff have said that chipping away at that number would be straightforward with some IT fixes, and Wright said additional staffing had played a major role as well.


Once the backlog in the regular unemployment system is addressed, the agency will turn to lags in payments for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which temporarily expands unemployment to self-employed individuals affected by COVID-19.


"We think we’ve turned a corner. We know there are still frustrations with the agency and we know we still have some problems in the PUA system," Wright told The Topeka Capital-Journal. "But we are doing everything in our power to make sure folks get paid."


The agency is also expanding its efforts to halt fraud in the PUA program, a nationwide problem that has taken hold in Kansas as well.


Many residents have received letters notifying them of their unemployment claims, which they say they never applied for.


The scams have been focused on the PUA program because states scrambled to build out that system on the fly during the pandemic while applications simultaneously flooded in.


Wright said the department has caught 55,000 fraudulent applications, a far cry from the handful of unemployment fraud cases he said KDOL generally uncovers each year.


He acknowledged, however, that some claims may have been paid out to scammers.


"I would be lying to you if I said some of these did not get through," Wright said. "Of course, when you’re talking about these kinds of numbers, we know some of them have been paid out. We definitely stopped the bulk of these from being paid out."


In response, KDOL has been boosting its backend security controls designed to identify bots that may be perpetrating fraudulent applications, as well as coordinating with other states and the U.S. Department of Labor.


And earlier this week, the agency rolled out a website for those who believe they have been a victim of fraudulent activity, which often indicates identify theft.


As of Thursday, 17,376 users have filed a report using the new website, KDOL said.


Users who do so will be advised on steps to take to protect their credit, as well as open a report within KDOL, which can act as a law enforcement agency in investigating potential fraudsters.


While the state now has added the Lost Wages Assistance Program to its array of unemployment aid, Wright said it was unlikely the fraud could be duplicated there.


LWAP will give Kansans already receiving unemployment benefits an additional $300 per week, and that means residents will already have gone through the heightened security checks associated with the regular unemployment programs.


"Those should be good claims that we can pay out without any huge concern about fraud," Wright said.