Kansas labor secretary resigns amid unemployment missteps

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Labor Secretary Delia Garcia, who was already under attack for the slow processing of unemployment claims during the pandemic, has resigned after her agency pushed the bank accounts of an unknown number of jobless residents into the red, the governor said Monday.

Gov. Laura Kelly announced she had accepted Garcia’s resignation on Sunday night and appointed the governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Ryan Wright to serve in an acting role until a permanent candidate can be nominated.

“We have been too slow to process unemployment claims, too many mistakes were made while trying to deliver claims, and our response time has not been addressed with urgency,” Kelly said at a news conference.

On June 10, duplicate payments totaling $7 million were sent to more than 4,500 claimants of pandemic unemployment assistance and compensation programs. On Thursday, the Labor Department began reversing those duplicate payments, a process known as clawback, that caused some bank accounts to become overdrawn.

The state is investigating reports that the state also removed money from the accounts of people who had not received duplicate payments, the governor said.

“The decision to clawback duplicate payments was done without consent from my office and after my staff had directed them not to move forward with clawbacks,” Kelly said. “We will determine how this breakdown occurred and ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

The state Labor Department is working to identify and reimburse people whose accounts were overdrawn, and has set up a special hotline and email for them to contact the department.

The governor said she would take action to address the volume of claims for unemployment insurance, including bringing in specialists to determine how to improve response times for unemployment insurance and implementing new ways to manage the caseload and mitigate backlogs and errors.

“While states around the country have struggled to manage unemployment claims during the worst public health crisis in a century, Secretary García inherited an agency that had its funding, its technology, and its staff gutted by the previous administration,” Kelly said.

She thanked Garcia for her service.

Some Republican lawmakers called for Garcia’s ouster last month, saying she had mismanaged the agency so badly that thousands of people were denied prompt payment of unemployment benefits.

But the governor steadfastly defended Garcia at the time, noting that the state unexpectedly went from record low to record high unemployment rates when the economy shut down to slow spread of the coronavirus virus. The state’s 40-year-old computer system was unable to keep up with the claims.

“I’m thankful that the governor has finally recognized the Department of Labor is broken and thousands of Kansans who have been laid off through no fault of their own have been wronged by the system,” said Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle.

Wagle, a Wichita Republican, added that she continues to hear from unemployed Kansans who aren’t receiving checks or have been cut off from payments.

Complaints about the handling of unemployment claims have dogged officials across the country, including in Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma. The director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission also resigned following complaints about unpaid jobless claims.

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