BELLE PLAINE, Kan. (AP) — When Denise Romero was laid off four weeks ago from her job as a waitress at a family-owned restaurant in Wichita, she had little choice but to scramble to find some other way to put food on the table amid the coronavirus outbreak that's putting record numbers of Kansans out of work.
Even though Romero had worked at the restaurant for a year and a half, the 28-year-old single mother does not qualify for unemployment insurance because she came to the United States from Mexico as a tourist and does not have a work visa. Her father is an American citizen and she has been trying to get her U.S. citizenship.
"I need a hustle. I need to go out there and make my money any type of a way that I can,” Romero said, adding that she has been cleaning houses and mowing lawns for people who are trying to help her out.
At a time when Kansas is struggling to keep up with an avalanche of unemployment claims, even those record numbers do not capture the full extent of job losses in the state.
Some people do not qualify for unemployment benefits and others choose to find temporary work to tide them over until businesses reopen. And many others simply cannot get through to the overwhelmed Kansas Department of Labor, where the 43-year-old mainframe computer cannot keep up with claims and telephone lines are jammed with frustrated callers.
Last week 50,345 new unemployment claims were filed in Kansas, compared to 1,405 claims for the the same week a year ago. Those new claims come on the heels of 55,428 new claims the week before, according to labor department figures.
Earlier this week, Gov. Laura Kelly told reporters the unemployment division shattered a “grim new record," receiving 1.6 million calls in a single day.
On Thursday, the governor said state officials had deployed 78 employees from other agencies to help staff Department of Labor phone lines, with a second wave of staff on the way. Kelly also announced that the department has launched a new phone system.
“Disconnects and busy signals will inevitably happen, but the new phone system combined with our new staff capacity should ensure callers are connected with experts at the Department of Labor in a more timely fashion so that their claims can be processed," she said.
The governor acknowledged one of the problems stems from a “horrendously outdated” unemployment insurance mainframe computer. She said the state has been working to see if it can use federal stimulus money to upgrade the technology.
Greg Zuercher doesn’t plan to claim his unemployment benefits after losing his job last month at the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane, where he worked as a blackjack dealer for the past three years.
“I am not one of those guys. I am not a government relief guy unless it is the absolutely last option,” the 62-year-old Wichita man said. “I am just not the kind of guy to go do that. I’ve applied at Walmart, believe it or not, and I think I’ll get hired there fairly soon to be a stocker.”
Zuercher, an Army veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is unmarried, has no children and no mortgage. He has been living on his military pension since losing his job.
“I am not frustrated or bitter. I just take it as, ‘oh well, my job wasn’t critical,’ so I knew it was going to end,” he said. “I knew we would be laid off temporarily while this thing is going on. I am just a realist.”