The Illinois House Republican Caucus is calling for immediate action to fix the state’s failed unemployment system to help families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Non-essential businesses have been closed since the middle of March, and many residents are still struggling to file for unemployment. House Republicans know we’re in the middle of a global health emergency, but they say Illinois’ economic emergency will become worse if the state doesn’t take action to help the newly unemployed.
“We should have anticipated that a number of these people, many Illinoisans, would be out of a job for an indefinite period of time,” said Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs). The House Minority Leader says restaurant and retail employees – people barely getting by from check to check – have been hit hardest by the executive order. “This should have been thought about, and I believe the state of Illinois has failed those Illinoisans.”
State Rep. Dave Severin (R-Benton) encouraged the governor to act on good advice when he gets it from legislators or outside sources.
“We’ve seen the governor make a lot of decisions that have impacted every single Illinoisan. Now we are asking him to make decisions to help those people that have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus emergency,” Severin said. “Where other states have used the federal government’s IT resources, Illinois has not. Where other states have relied on the private sector’s technical expertise, Illinois up until now has not. The question is, why? The governor can take further actions to fix the backlog at IDES. Unemployed people in Illinois have bills that are due and families to feed. The time to fix the problems at IDES is now.”
Representatives Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro) and Patrick Windhorst (R-Metropolis) have said their offices have been flooded with calls.
“My offices have been overwhelmed with phone calls from constituents that are not able to file online or to even speak with someone on the phone,” Bryant said. “I have been supportive of the governor’s stay at home orders and guidelines for social distancing. I still am. But, re-assigning staff and seeking private sector technical assistance would certainly go a long way to ease the backlog and get unemployed people the benefits they need.”
“Governor Pritzker said IDES will not be able to process unemployment claims for self-employed workers until the middle of May,” Windhorst said. “I call on the governor to redeploy state workers and seek help from the private sector and the federal government to help reduce the delays applicants are experiencing.”
Help on the way
The Pritzker administration says the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) website has fielded over 6.5 million sessions, and the call center has processed thousands of calls per day since March 1. Yet, when many call the unemployment line they hear: “If you’re calling to apply for unemployment benefits, we urge you to use our online portal at ides.illinois.gov.” Governor Pritzker says IDES is establishing an outside call center with 200 agents to help applicants.
“We’ve also updated IDES’s phone system to increase capacity by 40%, substantially reducing wait times,” Pritzker said. The Department has 173 employees answering calls, 274 members processing claims, and 93 administrative and support staff. The administration says those employees have worked 6,500 hours of overtime, and many work through the weekends to meet the state’s increased demand for unemployment insurance. IDES is also seeking help from recently retired staff with experience in unemployment insurance. The governor’s office says they will be able to work from home with state-provided laptops.
Some residents have tried calling IDES for several weeks to talk with a human instead of the automated system, but they’ve had no success. “One young lady called our office almost in tears. She was desperately trying to figure out how she was going to come up with enough money to buy her young daughter’s asthma medication,” Rep. Mike Marron (R-Fithian) said.
“A timeline to start with”
Governor Pritzker says the Department’s computer system was built to handle unemployment claims in the wake of the Great Recession. “It was built with the idea that unemployment would never really exceed what we saw in 2008 and 2009,” Pritzker said. The Governor says load times for the IDES web pages have significantly improved, as the website is now on a different server.
However, the struggle will continue for independent contractors and gig workers. The state won’t have a system set up for their unemployment benefits until the week of May 11. “Those people need money just like everybody else to pay their bills and take care of their families, things like that,” said Rep. Grant Wehrli (R-Naperville). “That’s not acceptable to me, but at least it’s a timeline to start with.”
Pritzker addressed this issue during his press briefing Monday afternoon, noting the state needs the additional system “that determines who’s eligible and who’s not” before money can be distributed. He says some states are able to take money out of their coffers for these workers, “but that’s not something that’s available to us in the state of Illinois.” 1099 workers can apply now, but Pritzker says the applications won’t be processed “until early or early mid-May.”