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In late April a Kansas activist posted in a Facebook group seeking unpaid unemployment claimants on behalf of a state Republican Party leader.
Kim Borchers, the Kansas Republican National Committeewoman, was in search of jobless people willing to describe their struggles with the Kansas Department of Labor in a video that would air as an attack against Gov. Laura Kelly in the 2022 gubernatorial race.
Cassandra Dickerson, the activist, agreed to help.
“It’s so challenging and difficult because I know it will be used to weaponize this election, particularly against Governor Kelly,” said Dickerson, a 40-year-old Olathe woman who has organized protests related to unemployment benefits in Kansas. “I’ve really tried to stay neutral in this situation but I cannot sit back and pretend that this did not happen and this did not happen under (Kelly’s) watch.”
Borchers did not respond to the Star’s request for comment. If it ultimately airs, the video will likely be one of many Republican attacks on Kelly for her handling of unemployment insurance during the pandemic, a bureaucratic bungle that left thousands of Kansans with late or undelivered payments of federal benefits.
And yet, Kansas Republicans in Washington and Topeka are now seeking an end to those same federal benefits.
Citing a need to “encourage Kansans to get back to work” state legislative leaders and the Republican House delegation have called on Kelly to halt Kansas’ participation in the program, following the lead of Republican governors including Missouri’s Mike Parson.
U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican, is sponsoring a bill to cut the benefit in half immediately and end it entirely after the end of June.
As vaccines facilitate the nation’s reentry into normal life, Republicans argue that the expanded benefits are an incentive for workers to stay off the job market, hindering businesses’ ability to fill vacant positions.
By failing to terminate the benefits, Speaker of the Kansas House Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said Kelly was “failing to deliver a system that supports economic recovery.” Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson said ending the enhanced payments would allow Kansas’ economy to “return to normal.”
“Policies championed by Democrats that embrace permanent welfare will dramatically thin our workforce, cripple small businesses, and rob capable individuals of the dignity that comes with hard work,” said U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner in a statement with U.S. Reps. Tracey Mann and Ron Estes on Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Kelly said the federal benefits will remain in place, at least for now, as she reviews the economic data.
“I have always researched the issues and figured out what to do and then acted accordingly while regardless of the political pressure that I get on issues,” Kelly said.
Kelly called it “ironic” that the same politicians who criticized her for months over the handling of unemployment in Kansas now wanted to end the program.
In a statement, Kelly spokesman Sam Coleman slammed the plan to recruit unpaid claimants for an attack video against Kelly.
“The Brownback Administration are the very people responsible for destroying the infrastructure at KDOL,” Coleman said. “It’s unsurprising — but disappointing — to see them now trying to score political points, right after Governor Kelly signed major bipartisan legislation to move the agency forward and modernize its IT systems.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, the Kansas Department of Labor has been in turmoil. The agency has gone through four secretaries in the last year while contending with the new federal programs and an unprecedented volume of claims — supported by a 1970s-era computer system.
As of Thursday at least 1,500 Kansans were still waiting to receive some of their federal benefits, according to Kelly’s office.
In February, Kelly wrote to Washington asking for funds to modernize the agency’s IT, a project she said was canceled by former Gov. Sam Brownback. Kansas Republicans responded by accusing her of presenting a “false narrative” and with suggestions for how she could better do her job.
“The Department of Labor’s inability to provide unemployment benefits in a timely or organized fashion during the heart of pandemic is not at all related to whether those extra benefits should be paid indefinitely,” Masterson said in a statement Thursday.
Asked about Kansans who struggled to obtain their benefits at the height of the pandemic because of problems at the Kansas Department of Labor, Marshall said they should still be paid the back benefits owed.
“So yes, the governor failed miserably and I’m not sure if it’s even fixed, but it’s getting closer to being fixed as people go back to work,” he said. “So certainly they’re entitled to that back benefit they should have received, but going forward I think there’s no reason you can’t get a job in Kansas.”
Kansas Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes called the pressure to end expanded benefits “typical” and “political” at the onset of election season.
“This is the same delegation and the same party who did not want to invest in the unemployment system,” Sykes said. “They have never looked on the worker side of how we help workers. It’s always been how do we give advantages to businesses.”
Marshall and other Senate Republicans held a news conference Wednesday where they blamed the enhanced benefit for a labor shortage dogging small businesses. Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn derisively referred to the money as “Biden bucks.”
After several of Marshall’s colleagues heaped praise on their states’ GOP governors for cutting the benefit, Marshall called on Kelly to do the same in Kansas.
“I am absolutely calling on her to end the federal unemployment extra benefit. People will still get their $500 a week, but this would end the extra $300… I would love for Gov. Kelly to make the announcement,” Marshall said.
“I think the economy’s had a huge rebound and just the volume of people talking to me, business owners, saying, ‘My goodness, we can’t get people back to work,’” Marshall said.
Cutting benefits may make workforce problems worse instead of better, said Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEBR) at Wichita State University,
Although some Kansans may choose not to work because of benefits, he said, structural changes in industries mean many cannot find positions that match the skill set and pay of the jobs they left.
“In most cases I think the real story is they’re not connecting to the labor market. They’re struggling to figure out where they can pay bills in a new market,” he said.
Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki, asked Wednesday at the White House about Parson’s decision to reduce benefits to spur workers back to work, rejected the idea that enhanced benefits were a disincentive to take a job.
“Frankly, we find that to be a bit off, off track, because what we’ve seen in the data is that the actual issues at play here are the pandemic and people needing to address things like childcare, being fearful about going back to work before they were vaccinated,” Psaki said.
“So states’ governors are going to make their own decisions, but it’s important to convey that when you look at the data, when you look at the facts, we have not seen that as a widespread driving factor in people not going back to work.”
McClatchy DC’s Francesca Chambers contributed to this report.