TOPEKA — When Ryan Wright was tapped by Gov. Laura Kelly to take over the Kansas Department of Labor in June, coronavirus had ruthlessly gutted the state’s economy and overwhelmed the agency responsible for delivering timely financial aid to people thrown out of work.
The unprecedented wave of joblessness meant people were unable to get through to labor department call centers. The agency’s creaky computer system showed its age. A backlog of claims kept expanding. Politicians eager to highlight weaknesses in the Kelly administration had a heyday. Then, the labor department tried to claw back incorrect payments and some of those transactions overdrafted unemployed Kansans’ bank accounts. It cost labor secretary Delia Garcia her job, and ushered in the Wright era.
In an interview, Wright said the addition of full-time and temporary staff and a series of IT network patches had helped stabilize the system. He also said his office had blocked about 55,000 attempts at fraud. Just as no magical remedy for COVID-19 has emerged, neither has a silver bullet for what challenges the labor department.
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