Kansas unemployment soars in March as coronavirus inflates filers by 130,000; Ellworth prison disturbance; National Guard medical staff assist at Lansing prison; first responders exposed to COVID-19 may not have health insurance to cover treatment; death toll at 69.

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TOPEKA — Kansas unemployment skyrocketed at an unprecedented pace in March as restrictions on movement of people and nonessential commerce tightened in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The new virus has exposed profound shortcomings of the state's old computer system for processing applications for jobless assistance. Getting questions answered at the Kansas Department of Labor’s call center has been a nightmare, despite a doubling of the staff. Online applicants for unemployment benefits have been thwarted as the state’s 43-year-old mainframe computer system crashed over the weekend, on Monday and again Tuesday.

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"The rapid increase in applications has caused strain in our system," said Gov. Laura Kelly. "It is moving slowly. It has been patched together."

The Democratic governor said filing of 130,000 initial claims during the past three weeks overwhelmed the computer system at the Department of Labor, which already had engaged in a process of upgrading the system.

Awaiting the newly unemployed in Kansas, if they can get through the state agency's IT obstacle course, is $118 to $474 per week in Kansas benefits in addition to the $600 weekly supplement approved at the federal level during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wichita Republican Susan Wagle, the Kansas Senate president and a GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, said the Department of Labor's handling of unemployment applications demonstrated the Kelly administration's priorities were in the wrong place.

Wagle has been a critic of the governor's executive order restricting church attendance to crowds of no more than 10 people. House and Senate GOP members of the Legislative Coordinating Council rejected the governor’s order, but a lawsuit filed by Kelly produced a Kansas Supreme Court opinion that said the LCC didn't have authority to revoke an executive order.

“Governor Kelly’s focus has been on removing the Legislature’s check on her power through a frivolous lawsuit rather than ensuring her administration is addressing the needs of Kansans," Wagle said. "This failure has been brewing since the pandemic began and Kansans have run out of patience."

Wagle solicited complaints from unemployed Kansans who struggled to get through jammed phone lines and received nearly 300 emails in one day. A recurring theme: People think they filed their claim only to find the labor department system kept no record of the filing.

The state labor department was in early stages of the computer overhaul when the coronavirus began to take hold in the state and nonessential businesses were closed and people instructed to remain at home as much as possible. The Kansas Department of Administration convened a group last weekend to consider how a modern unemployment computer network can be implemented at the same time adjustments are made to the existing system, the governor said.

"It's sort of like repairing a plane in the air," Kelly said. "I know this process has been frustrating. We will continue to build capacity for those seeking to make unemployment claims."

However, Wagle said problems with processing claims showed the Kelly administration's inability to manage the labor agency.

"Kansas workers who have been laid off during this pandemic need quick action and attentive leadership in order to collect both their Kansas and their federal compensation," Wagle said.

Health officials reported Tuesday that 69 Kansans have died from the coronavirus. Testing has revealed 1,426 people in Kansas have been infected.

Prison upheaval

On Tuesday, the Kansas Department of Corrections said more than 125 inmates at Ellsworth Correctional Facility engaged in “disruptive acts” prompting a lockdown of Building 2 at the Ellsworth facility. Inmates at Lansing Correctional Facility recently rioted.

Corrections officials said the Ellsworth distrubance on Sunday lasted two hours and involved 125 to 150 male inmates.

Corrections officials said control was regained with use of chemical agents, but ECF officers didn’t require additional personnel to end the disruption. No staff or residents were injured, officials said.

Property damage was mostly limited to bulletin boards, security cameras and trash being thrown from cells, the agency said.

Meanwhile, Kansas National Guard staff were assigned to provide supplemental medical support at the Lansing prison. The Kansas Division of Emergency Management, led by the Kansas Guard’s adjutant general, requested the deployment after more than 100 work-release inmates from Wichita were transferred to Lansing.

“Our Kansas National Guard members are extremely versatile and flexible and have a huge skill set we can call on,” said Maj. Gen. David Weishaar, the adjutant general and director of emergency management.

First responders

Volunteer first responders based in the small Kingman County town of Norwich receive no pay for risking their health and livelihood by serving their community during a pandemic.

If they are exposed to someone with COVID-19, they could lose income from their full-time jobs by being quarantined. And if they contract the virus while providing medical care, they may not have health insurance to pay for their own treatment.

"We are fortunate we have committed people who are willing to take care of their community,“ said Chrissy Bartel, director of Norwich Ambulance Service. ”They haven't shied away from the responsibility of responding, but in doing so there is some trepidation of what could happen."

Part-time and volunteer workers for emergency medical services across Kansas share the concern. The Kansas EMS Association sent a letter to Gov. Laura Kelly asking her to issue an executive order that would cover lost wages and health care costs for frontline care providers.

Kansas workers compensation doesn’t cover communicable disease infections.

The danger is heightened by a nationwide shortage in personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves and gowns. Kelly said the state has distributed all supplies received from the Strategic National Stockpile and has yet to receive anything from the Federal Emergency Management Agency despite seven requests and a phone call with Vice President Mike Pence.

Bartel anticipated the possibility of a supply shortage when she saw the crisis unfolding in China. In January, she ordered what she hopes will be enough equipment. If there is a surge in cases, however, her small staff of 15 volunteers, who cover 300 square miles and handle just 170 calls per year, could be in trouble. The usual suppliers have told her they have nothing left to sell.

"No matter what the emergency is, and no matter whether it's going to be something different or if it happens to be the coronavirus, our providers are well equipped and ready to respond to their emergency,“ Bartel said. ”They're prepared to come no matter what. They're ready to answer the call."

David Adams, director of Riley County Emergency Management Services, said the possibility of infection is “a huge concern for us.” His department is divided between 30 full-time employees and 20 part-timers.

Adams said employees take tremendous precautions, but if a part-time worker gets exposed, the individual can’t go back to his or her full-time job for at least 14 days.

"If that's the case, then how do you get paid?“ he said. ”We've had part-time employees who say, ’Right now, I can't work for you because there is no protection, and if I were exposed, then I'm off of my full-time job and I've got no income.’ "

The department appears to have enough masks and gloves, he said, but just two or three weeks worth of gowns. What happens then? They may have to “just wash them,” he said, and look for alternatives.

"I want the public to know that first responders are well trained, and they're taking every precaution they can to protect themselves and protect the public," Adams said.

In his letter to the governor, Dave Johnston, Reno County EMS chief and president of the Kansas EMS Association, said the lack of necessary supplies endangers EMTs and paramedics, as well as their families, colleagues and patients.

"EMS providers will be severely financially impacted if they are quarantined or become ill from COVID-19 due to delivering care to patients,“ Johnston said.

Utility connections

The Kansas Corporation Commission relied Tuesday on its emergency powers to extend until May 15 an order suspending utility disconnections for nonpayment of bills.

The previous one-month order initiated March 16 in response to the pandemic was set to expire Wednesday.

“The difficulties associated with COVID-19 are far from over,” said Susan Duffy, chairwoman of the KCC. “As Kansans continue to face both health and financial challenges, it is critical that they have continued access to utility services in their homes to ensure public safety.”

The KCC’s directive covers all electrical, natural gas, water and telecommunications utilities under the KCC’s jurisdiction, several of which have voluntarily suspended disconnects. The commission encouraged utilities not under its jurisdiction to enact similar practices.