‘What else can I do for my family?’: Hunger strike, protesters lambaste Department of Labor

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Tears roll down Re'Nae Pherigo's face as she sits Tuesday afternoon outside the Kansas Department of Labor explaining why she is on her second day of a hunger strike. Pherigo, a Wellington resident and mother of three, sent a letter to KDOL explaining her frustration with filing for unemployment benefits. "You WILL hear me if this is the last thing I do," Pherigo said in her letter.

Kelly Dufford didn't know if she would have the money to make it to Topeka.

Her motivation for making the two-hour drive from her home in Derby was the same reason she was low on cash: the Kansas Department of Labor, which she said hasn't paid out her regular unemployment benefits in weeks.

Laid off by Spirit Aerosystems in October, Dufford and her family have been scrambling to make ends meet. Her son-in-law also works in the aerospace industry, which has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the pair are the primary breadwinners for their household.

She is also having to help take care of her infant grandson, who underwent surgery in December. All the while, bills have stacked up, including a car payment that she says she won't be able to make for next week.

Kelly Dufford, a Derby resident, shows her attempts to unsuccessfully file for unemployment benefits at a protest Monday outside the Kansas Department of Labor headquarters.

Her claims have been flagged as fraudulent, even though Dufford was one of many Spirit workers to be laid off at the same time. Finding out why her payments are paused has been impossible, she said.

"What else can I do for my family?" Dufford said, tearfully. "They won't answer your phone calls. They don't call you back, no matter how much correspondence you send. What do you do?"

When she saw that another woman, Re'Nae Pherigo, was set to launch a one-woman protest outside the agency's headquarters, she decided she couldn't stay at home and instead drove up to express solidarity — even though she is unsure whether she can pay the toll to return home.

"I could sit on the phone for two hours or I could drive down there and they could see me," Dufford said.

‘Our savings accounts are gone’

Pherigo, a former emergency medical services professional who lives in Wellington, didn't return to her old job when the pandemic hit, concerned about exposing her newborn child to COVID-19.

The voluntary decision left her unable to access unemployment benefits, forcing her to pick up shifts as an Uber driver. When those dried up, she attempted to file for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which targets self-employed individuals or gig workers.

Her own frustrations with KDOL began when she didn't get unemployment benefits until June. She was one of the thousands of Kansans in a backlog of PUA claimants.

The problems resurfaced in recent months: Pherigo said she hasn't been paid since November.

"There have been a few weeks where my husband has gotten consistent payments," she said. "Mine have been blocked or chunked together over certain amounts of time. There were two weeks where I got payments on the day that I was supposed to out of the year that we are now into this."

Appeals continue to fall on deaf ears, prompting her to drive several hours to Topeka to demonstrate outside KDOL headquarters. Undeterred by negative comments on social media, or by the chill in the air, she said her last-ditch efforts came after she had exhausted all other options.

Her protest is more serious than others who have taken their pleas to the agency: Pherigo said she would stand outside on a hunger strike until she believes that her cries, and the cries of other Kansans, are addressed.

"Our 401(k)s are gone. Our savings accounts are gone," she said. "I am beyond ashamed to admit it but even my children's savings accounts are gone. I've had my oldest daughter's savings account for 10 years and I hadn't even touched it (before now)."

Governor defends agency, pushes for modernization

Gov. Laura Kelly speaks Monday at a Statehouse news conference on the Kansas Department of Labor.

Gov. Laura Kelly and KDOL officials have defended the agency's current situation, saying that it has been hamstrung by a 1970s-era computer system and arguing that a backlog of thousands of residents without payments has been winnowed down significantly.

"I know the events of this past year have been overwhelming, frustrating and downright unfair," Kelly said Monday at a Statehouse news conference. "I hear you and I'm doing everything in my power to fix things now and to ensure that never again do Kansans experience these obstacles to help."

Problems have been compounded by a rash of fraudulent benefits claims. It is unclear how much money has inadvertently been paid out to the scammers but Kelly said Monday that she believes it to be "likely very much less" than the estimate of $700 million that has been used by Republicans in the Legislature.

Officials have hoped that stricter security measures aimed at filtering out the bogus filings will help free up more time for legitimate claimants.

New login procedures have blocked over 500,000 fraudsters who tried to log in to the system. But they muddied the waters for Dufford and her son-in-law, both of whom have had trouble working the new system, which is more complicated.

Getting help addressing those problems has been impossible, she added.

"I know that, with the system, their hands are tied to a certain point," Dufford said. "But you can reach out to people and communicate."

Kelly said that over 450 workers were now staffing the call center, with another 100 in the process of being hired. She also noted that federal unemployment programs are again up and running after being reauthorized by Congress in December, which Kelly said will help residents who remain out of work.

The governor has pushed to shift the discussion toward modernizing the unemployment systems, a process that normally takes upwards of five years but which state officials believe can't come soon enough.

Republicans have argued the Kelly administration should have moved more quickly in bidding out potential upgrades, although the governor has countered that potential modernization efforts that started in the mid-2000s were halted under Gov. Sam Brownback.

"Over the last decade, the Kansas Department of Labor was underfunded and undersupported," Kelly said.

She has advocated for federal funding to help boost the project, joining a letter encouraging Congress to make money available to states as part of any further COVID-19 relief legislation.

Kelly's budget request also included an ask for $37.5 million in state funding for upgrades, although legislators have wanted to create pass legislation to ramp up oversight over that process.

The sweeping bill, which is under consideration by a House committee later this week, also would aim to ensure employers are not responsible for the aftershocks of any fraudulent benefits payments. It would also curb the length of time that residents can apply for benefits, something which has rankled Democrats.

Republicans have argued broader legislation is vitally important given the current situation.

"We've got people losing their cars, we've got people that can't eat, haven't paid their rent since March," said Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell, earlier this month.

Hunger striker undeterred by political back-and-forth

While lawmakers face off over the issue, Pherigo sat a quarter-mile away outside KDOL. She had contacted local authorities to inform them she intended to stay outside for hours, maybe days, and said she is dead set on continuing her protest no matter what.

In addition to Dufford's arrival, a neighborhood resident stopped to check on her and offered encouragement. A steady stream of supportive car horns indicated other residents were sympathetic to her plight as well.

And a deputy secretary for the agency stopped to chat with Pherigo on his way in. After bonding over the similar age of their children, he took down her information and said he would look into problems with her claim.

Pherigo expressed sympathy for the agency's staffers who are trying to address issues within the department.

But her concern was primarily for those like her who have been caught in the crossfire, unsure of which way to turn in an unprecedented time.

"Nobody wrote a book on how to get through a pandemic," Pherigo said.