According to the latest report from the Kansas Department of Labor, 80,000 Kansans are unemployed as of October. (Photo Illustration/Chase Castor)

When Karyn Martinez of Wichita was furloughed from her job at the end of March, she immediately applied for unemployment. Receiving unemployment aid, including the extra $600 in pandemic unemployment insurance authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, helped pay her monthly bills.

Then the payments stopped.

“I had to wait 10 weeks just to get it,” Martinez, 40, said. “I almost lost everything. I’m at the point (where) I’m about to leave my car. I have no car insurance on it because of this.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic triggered mass layoffs across the country in the spring, Martinez is one of more than 80,000 Kansans who were unemployed as of October this year. Without a job, they’ve relied on state and federal support to get by — to pay rent, bills, utilities and food. 

But nine months since unemployment claims began skyrocketing in the spring, Martinez and other Kansans are experiencing delays in receiving their payments and a lack of clarity from the Kansas Department of Labor. 

Throughout the pandemic, a backlog of unemployment claims at the Kansas Labor Department has been causing delays in how quickly weekly payments are processed. According to data provided by the Department of Labor, the agency saw a backlog of claims under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program ranging from 20,000-25,000 as of Dec. 4. The backlog for regular unemployment insurance stands at 5,605, a decrease from the backlog of 25,000 in June. 

Jan Lunsford with the Labor Department said the agency will be able to “make significant progress” in its backlog of pandemic and regular unemployment claims by the end of the year. A pandemic unemployment claim stuck in the agency’s backlog, Lunsford said, means there was an issue with the claim requiring additional information or scrutiny. To meet the high volume of claims, Lunsford said the agency has also increased its staffing numbers. 

“We believe we can aggressively work through this backlog and determine if a claim is valid and quickly get those checks out the door,” Lunsford wrote in an email to The Beacon.

Martinez received 10 weeks’ worth of back pay at the start of October and continued to receive payments for three weeks. Then the payments stopped again in November. As of Dec. 11, Martinez has gone five weeks without receiving an unemployment payment. 

It’s caused frustrations to mount for Martinez — the inconsistency has meant being late on bills and facing the possibility of ending up in a shelter with her 10-year-old daughter.

“There’s a lot of us on a cliff, and we’re probably all gonna fall,” she said. “… I will probably lose everything.”

‘You can’t live daily’

The week of March 24, when Martinez lost her job, 55,428 people filed for unemployment in Kansas — the highest number of initial unemployment claims filed in a single week this year. 

According to unemployment figures from October, Kansas’ unemployment rate stands at 5.3%, a slight decrease from September’s unemployment rate of 5.9%. But a study from WalletHub found that of all 50 states, unemployment claims increased the most in Kansas from Nov. 28 to Dec. 5.

Since the spring, the federal government has implemented several pandemic-specific programs to provide additional aid to unemployed workers. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program was established to make gig workers, freelancers and contractors — workers who have not traditionally been able to file for unemployment — eligible for unemployment. The week ending Dec. 12, 64,552 continuing claims under the program were filed in Kansas. The CARES Act also added an extra $600 on top of regular unemployment benefits. That cushion expired at the end of July, ending what had become a crucial lifeline for many unemployed workers. 

Those who have received the maximum 26 weeks’ worth of unemployment insurance and are still unemployed can apply for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, a federal extension of unemployment benefits available for up to 13 weeks from March 29 to Dec. 26. People who exhaust those 13 weeks can then apply for extended benefits, though that program ended in Kansas on Dec. 12.

The Lost Wages Assistance program, implemented in August under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was part of another federal effort to supplement unemployment benefits by providing an additional $300 per week; funds for that program ran out at the start of September. 

Kristie Bonderson, 49, of Topeka, was already receiving unemployment prior to the pandemic. She was supposed to start a new job in April — then the pandemic hit. 

Since May, Bonderson has lost her car and her home — she’s been living with her son, her pregnant daughter-in-law and their 4-year-old child. After exhausting regular unemployment and the 13 weeks of Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, she applied for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program Oct. 3. 

Bonderson has since gone 11 weeks without receiving an unemployment payment or income of any sort. She’s been trying to live minimally, she said, but it’s hard to live on nothing for 11 weeks.

“You can’t live daily, it’s almost impossible,” she said. “You’re afraid to eat because you don’t want to spend that money, because you don’t know when you’re getting paid next. You don’t want to put gas in your car. You don’t want to go anywhere. You don’t see family. … Because you’re just scared to spend anything.”

Few, if any, answers

Martinez describes trying to call the Kansas Department Labor for answers as an “all-day experience.” There are some days where she calls hundreds of times.

“I call anywhere from 500 to 800 times a day just to try to get through,” she said. “You just literally have to sit there and keep calling, and then you’re on hold another hour or so before somebody can get to you.”

The struggle of trying to reach the department for answers further underscores the immense strain the agency’s systems have faced in processing the high volume of claims throughout the pandemic. With an unemployment system running on decades-old technology, the slowness in responding to claims has translated into a backlog that impacts the ability for unemployed Kansans like Martinez and Bonderson to receive their payments in the first place. 

“This is a lifeline. This is all we have. There’s nothing else.”

Karyn Martinez, 40, Wichita

And Kansans are still waiting. Bonderson once called the Department of Labor over 800 times one December day — once she got through, she was put on hold for three and a half hours. 

“You don’t have any hope,” Bonderson said. “You get up in the morning, you start dialing, and you get nothing. There’s days you just sit in your room in tears.” 

The inability to immediately speak with a representative has also meant that Kansans with discrepancies on their unemployment claims face even more delays in resolving those issues. Philip Dugan, 33, of Topeka, who’s been out of work since early March, hasn’t received any unemployment payment since filing in July — he won’t be able to until he clears up the issues on his unemployment claim with the Department of Labor.

Dugan said he would call the agency 30 to 50 times a day, often with little to no success. In the meantime, rent and utilities are still due, and Dugan needs the money. 

“I have moments where I’m like, I give up. I’m not gonna get unemployment — it’s not gonna happen for me,’” Dugan said. “And then I have moments where I’m like, I can’t stop fighting. I need this.” 

“Because imagine, if I were to actually get paid for all those weeks that I wasn’t paid yet, I can catch up on my car payment, I could pay the rest of my lease off for our rent.”

What’s next?

For Martinez, each day is another day of not knowing what to do — she’s always had a plan B and a plan C. 

But Martinez is all out of plans. 

She can’t pay her bills, from her car payments to her car insurance to her water bill. She’s had to visit a food bank. She’s had to tell her 10-year-old daughter that there won’t be any gifts from Santa this year. 

“I’ve had to sell all my belongings in my house,” Martinez said. 

Federal lawmakers are still debating over the next round of coronavirus relief legislation; Politico reports that the latest version of the $908 billion bipartisan plan would expand the federal unemployment programs to $300 a week over 16 weeks. But even if Congress passes a much-needed bill, the expiration of the extended benefits and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program will leave about 13.4 million people nationwide without any aid from the government. 

If those extra benefits expire without any government action, Kansans like Martinez face the prospect of losing everything.

“People are suffering here,” Martinez said. “Because for a lot of us, this is a lifeline. This is all we have. There’s nothing else.”

Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @celisa_mia or email her at celisa@thebeacon.media.