Jobless mother and son experience bitter economic reality of coronavirus outbreak as claims overwhelm labor department; KDHE worries about harm from smoky air; Kelly not looking to release prisoners

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TOPEKA — Amanda Derby has bills to pay, a 7-year-old autistic son and no job.


The 36-year-old Topeka woman was laid off last week when Old Chicago shut down in response to sweeping concerns about the coronavirus and a Shawnee County ban on public dining. Derby, a bartender and server, quickly filed an unemployment claim through the Kansas Department of Labor, but despite new federal guidelines that waive the waiting week, she hasn’t received any benefits.


"Bills are piling up," Derby said. "I don't have any money. I literally have $20 right now."


Derby was among the 23,925 Kansans who initiated claims for unemployment last week, up from 1,820 the week before. The volume has overwhelmed the KDOL staff tasked with fielding calls and processing claims.


At least 171 Kansas residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and the state’s top health officer says the number may reach 400 by March 31. More than half the state’s residents are under mandatory orders to shelter in place for at least a month, and Gov. Laura Kelly signed a hoard of executive orders designed to promote social distancing and minimize those caught in the virus’ economic turmoil.


The new positive cases include a Fort Riley soldier and the first recorded infections of the virus into Jefferson, Crawford, Riley, Sumner and Neosho counties.


Julie Menghini, a spokeswoman for the labor department, said the agency is in the process of implementing system changes necessary to waive the traditional waiting week for unemployment benefits. Claimants should receive their initial direct deposit or debit card within 7 to 10 days, she said.


The agency is asking unemployed workers to file claims online at dol.ks.gov to ease the burden on state workers.


"We are dealing with an unprecedented number of claims and limited staff," Menghini said, "so there are challenges for impacted workers in getting their claims filed at this time."


The labor department is "doing everything possible to try and meet this demand," including training staff members who typically have no contact with unemployment claims to take calls, Menghini said.


Derby, the Topeka mother, isn’t asking for help but is concerned about the delay in processing her unemployment claim. She is thinking about bills for rent, student loans, her car, insurance, internet and utilities. She has plenty of food for now, thanks to a parting gift of perishables from her former employer.


"At this point, I'm doing everything I can to keep it together for my child and keep him healthy and active," she said.


Derby doesn’t know if she will have a job to go back to when this unprecedented crisis is over. Old Chicago filed for bankruptcy in early March. Walmart and Dillons are hiring, Derby discovered, but then learned their offers of about $10 per hour would pay less than unemployment.


"I might as well just stay home and educate my child and try to survive," she said.


Kroger, the parent company for Dillons, announced this week it was adding employees to help with heightened levels of business and to support people in the community who are looking for jobs right now.


Shelia Lowrie, a spokeswoman for Kroger, said starting pay could exceed $10 for prospective employees like Derby.


"We do have the ability to grant experience credits to allow for a higher rate of pay since she has past work experience," Lowrie said. "Perhaps we can find a good fit for her."


Putting out fires


The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Thursday asked land managers for a voluntary reduction in the traditional burning of pastures and prairies.


Local emergency responders are dedicating all available resources to the spread of COVID-19, the agency said, leaving them ill-equipped to handle calls from those who suffer health problems related to breathing smoke. The worsened air quality could impact individuals with respiratory issues, including COVID-19 and lung disease.


"With the potential for this pandemic overwhelming the state’s medical facilities, any additional respiratory concerns that could be produced from breathing smoke from prescribed fire need to be mitigated," said KDHE secretary Lee Norman.


KDHE is urging land owners within a large, designated area of central Kansas to consult ksfire.org for assistance in making burn decisions.


On Wednesday, Kelly issued a disaster declaration for wildfires in Barber County to unlock state resources and assist local firefighters. The Kansas National Guard deployed a pair of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters equipped with 660-gallon water buckets used to spread water on areas that are difficult for ground crews the reach.


Brad Loveless, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said the state parks, state fishing lakes and wildlife areas remained open to the public. The agency, at this time, isn’t considering waiving fishing license fees, he said.


"During this time of unprecedented changes, there is value in those things that can stay consistent," Loveless said.


Early release


Kelly said Thursday she was considering additional executive orders for responding to the pandemic in Kansas, but she wasn't prepared to disclose the ideas being considered by her administration.


Speaking to The Topeka Capital-Journal's editorial advisory board, the governor ruled out the possibility of opening state prison doors for certain types of criminals, as some county jails have done. The Wichita Eagle reported at least 200 inmates have been released from the Sedgwick County jail as a precaution.


Kelly said the Kansas Department of Corrections instead would continue work to mitigate in each facility the possibility of the coronavirus spreading in state prisons.


The juvenile detention centers are practicing social distancing, she said, and the decline in incarcerated youths in recent years gives them more space to work with.


Earlier this week, a national coalition of youth advocates demanded Kelly and governors of other states release incarcerated youth who don't pose a substantial safety risk to others.


"As the country continues to address the pandemic, we cannot leave behind our nearly 43,000 young people in custody," said Liz Ryan, CEO of the Youth First Initiative. "Youth prisons and detention facilities are harmful to youth under normal circumstances and are simply not equipped to protect young people should an outbreak occur."



Quick $5 million


It took 48 hours for the idled hospitality industry in Kansas to accept Kelly’s offer of $5 million in zero-interest loans to help keep afloat their hotels, bars, restaurants and convention and event centers.


The Hospitality Industry Relief Emergency Fund, made available March 20, was initiated to provide one-time loans up to $20,000. The program was launched by the Kansas Department of Commerce in cooperation with NetWork Kansas, a nonprofit with business loan underwriters in 64 counties.


"The hospitality industry in Kansas was one of the first to be hit financially by the COVID-19 crisis," Kelly said.


More than 1,400 loan applications were received and 344 businesses were approved. Sixty-eight in Sedgwick County will share $1 million, while 136 in the Kansas City metropolitan area can make use of $2 million. The remaining $2 million was earmarked for 140 businesses scattered across the state.


"We know that $5 million doesn’t come close to making up the losses that the hospitality industry and others have and will continue to incur," said David Toland, secretary at the state Department of Commerce. "Anything we can do, no matter how big or how small, to infuse dollars into Kansas businesses to help them make payroll, pay their electric bills or meet their mortgage obligations, we’re going to do it."


Meanwhile, Kansas businesses can apply for federal disaster loan assistance up to $2 million through the U.S. Small Business Administration.


Business of hospitals


Robert Kenagy, president and chief operating officer of the Stormont Vail Health in Topeka, said preparation for the projected influx of coronavirus patients in Kansas required suspension of elective surgeries and a portion of outpatient services.


He said unprecedented disruption of hospital revenue amid the COVID-19 pandemic would translate into a bleak financial prognosis. The federal government is working on an aid package for the health care system but rediscovering financial equilibrium won’t be easy, he said.


"I do want to call out an opportunity that I think our state leadership missed," Kenagy said. "It would be advantageous to be able to rely on the idea that we have Medicaid expansion to support the care that we provide to people without financial resources."


In January, Kelly endorsed a bipartisan expansion bill that stalled due to objections by House and Senate Republican leaders. Broadening eligibility could offer health insurance under Medicaid to 130,000 low-income Kansans. The federal government would pay 90% of expansion costs.


The economics of coronavirus treatment will leave a footprint on the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kan.


""There is nothing about COVID-19 that is cheap. It significantly affects your revenue and increases your costs," said Steven Stites, chief medical officer at KU Health System.


The left-leaning Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., issued a report that said Kansas and 14 other states that haven’t expanded Medicaid eligibility were the least prepared to assist people who lost jobs and health coverage amid the virus-driven shutdown.


"Indigent care doesn’t go away because there is coronavirus here. These folks are still coming to the hospital," said Lee Norman, secretary at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and an advocate for expansion of Medicaid coverage.