Many to blame for problems at Kansas Department of Labor. They were decades in the making.
With the first Republican having now filed to challenge Gov. Laura Kelly in 2022, Kansans are about to hear a raft of claims and counter-claims about the Kansas Department of Labor’s woeful handling of unemployment claims during the pandemic.
Most will lay the blame squarely on the governor. Like many of the unemployment filings themselves, quite a few of these claims will be fraudulent. The barrage could start any day now, so before it does, here is what we know.
First, the computers themselves were decrepit due to decades of deferred maintenance. As the pandemic hit, KDOL computers dated from the 1970s. My colleague Patrick Miller wrote about the developing problems back in April 2020.
Then the deluge worsened. Entire mainframes processing tens of thousands of claims had far less processing capacity than one modern-day phone, watch, or thermostat. They could not be serviced or repaired, since the production of replacement parts ended decades ago.
How did this happen? Another colleague, Burdett Loomis warned us in his 2019 column about the aging Docking State Office Building. Kansas has a huge backlog of deferred maintenance, from buildings to computers to infrastructure.
Pushing back maintenance schedules is a seemingly painless way to balance budgets without tax increases or cuts to popular programs. In truth, the pain is simply hidden. Over time it saddles the state with multi-billion dollar liabilities and an inability to cope with crises such as the pandemic.
Republicans and Democrats alike bear responsibility. Both ignored or downplayed the problem. Some even made it worse. For example, a Brownback-era experiment in no-bid contracting for these services diverted money that could have funded the necessary upgrades.
Now, the Legislature has finally appropriated the money for these upgrades. They expected to be completed in 2022 — a little late to help with the pandemic.
KDOL’s problems go far beyond slow processing and jammed phone lines. Thousands and thousands of Kansans have been hit with fraudulent unemployment claims filed in their names. Even the governor herself has been affected.
Kansas is not alone. California paid out an estimated $9 billion on such fake claims, and other states in our region were also affected, with Colorado and Missouri being particularly hard-hit. Still, Kansans are right to want answers.
Current investigations indicate that the data breach did not occur in Kansas. Instead, overseas fraudsters data-mined personal information from countless Kansans using earlier data leaks such as the 2017 breach of Equifax, a credit-reporting agency. The fraudsters then sat on this data and waited. The flood of claims due during pandemic was their moment, and they pounced.
Already overwhelmed, KDOL was unable to cope. Like other states, Kansas has paid out many of these claims, and some, perhaps most of that money is gone forever.
KDOL has announced that no Kansas individual or company will be penalized as a result, but there have still been countless inconveniences including delays in processing legitimate claims, not to mention the time consumed by cancelling credit cards, changing account numbers, and just generally re-claiming one’s identity.
Also, some Kansans still do not know that they were affected and will find out later.
It is true that as Kansas’ chief executive, the buck stops with Kelly. Also, KDOL worsened the problem by being slow to respond, and by not being transparent with the news media.
Even so, blaming the governor alone does not even begin to capture the magnitude of this. KDOL’s problems were decades in the making.
Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.