Illinois ranks 7th worst in U.S. for pandemic unemployment assistance rollout

Illinois ranks 7th worst in U.S. for pandemic unemployment assistance rollout

Illinois was among the nation’s worst for delays in helping gig workers and the self-employed receive pandemic assistance unemployment payments, a federal audit found. Rampant fraud and inadequate reporting was also discovered nationwide.

Illinois forced its self-employed and independent workers to wait an average of 48 days to receive federal benefits, according to an audit by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General. That was the seventh-slowest delivery of benefits in the nation.

The national Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program was established in March 2020 to provide benefits to idled workers who did not qualify for traditional unemployment benefits, such as gig workers and the self-employed. Illinois had no mechanism in place to distribute the benefits and an outdated computer system.

The $22 million no-bid contract to improve the system and create a call center immediately exposed the Social Security numbers and other private information of nearly 32,500 unemployed Illinoisans. The system also left as many as 156,000 people awaiting callbacks about their benefits.

“This report is confirmation of the unrealistic expectations put on states at the onset of the pandemic and the difficulties all states faced implementing brand new federal programs in an extremely difficult timeframe,” a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Employment Security responded in a statement to CBS 2. “We’re happy that USDOL OIG conducted this audit and recognizes the difficulty states had rolling out these programs, which have served as a vital economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Besides benefits for self-employed workers, federal benefits provided $600 a week extra for them and for traditional unemployed workers as well as an extra 13 weeks of benefits for workers whose benefits ran out. The audit found all states had trouble implementing at least one of the three programs.

On average, states took 38 days to make the first payment to the self-employed, 25 days to make the first $600 payment and 50 days to make the first payment to workers whose benefits expired. Illinois took 48 days to make the first self-employed payment, 10 days for the extra $600 and 25 days to deliver extended benefits.

The federal audit stated delayed payments caused claimants to miss bill payments, deplete their savings, borrow at high interest rates, have difficulty putting food on the table and left some homeless.

At least $39 billion in CARES Act unemployment money was improperly paid and wasted nationwide by Jan. 2, 2021. That was about 10% of the total paid out. The audit found nearly $5.4 billion of those funds were lost to fraud.

It also discovered 40% of states failed to conduct required benefit payment control crossmatches and 88% did not perform requested checks to detect and deter improper payments.

Ultimately, the audit faulted old systems, insufficient staff size and unclear guidance from the federal Employment and Training Administration. The administration provided $200 million to states to hire staff and improve fraud detection.

“IDES is one of many states still quantifying a dollar amount attributable to identity theft-related fraud. This number is reportable to DOL and will be made available when that number has been identified,” the IDES spokesperson stated.

IDES has been plagued by problems and has left many frustrated during the COVID-19 economic downturn. Its offices have been closed to the public for more than 450 days as 16,455 calls were awaiting an answer on May 28. There were 422,093 Illinoisans still receiving unemployment benefits as of May 15.

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