Thousands of Illinoisans await calls from state unemployment agency

Thousands of Illinoisans await calls from state unemployment agency

The Illinois Department of Employment Security had a backlog of 156K calls in February. Now, over a year into the pandemic, its offices remain closed to the public and 43K Illinoisans are still awaiting a call from IDES.

“Hello. You’ve reached the Illinois Department of Employment Security. There are 43,355 calls ahead of you.”

The Illinois Department of Employment Security was quickly overwhelmed when COVID-19 shuttered businesses and clogged the state’s aging unemployment claims system more than a year ago, peaking at 202,157 claims the week ending April 4, 2020. Unemployed Illinoisans spent hours on hold and weeks awaiting calls to try to resolve claims.

The state then took months figuring out how to get federal aid to self-employed workers who typically were not eligible for unemployment. It hired Deloitte Consulting through a $22 million no-bid contract to design the system and create a call center, but as soon as the system went online it exposed the Social Security numbers and private information of 32,483 applicants.

IDES still is failing to cope. There were 43,355 calls from Illinoisans seeking unemployment assistance that remained unanswered on May 4, according to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Illinois Policy Institute. It has been much worse: 104,626 Illinoisans were awaiting calls March 23 and 155,765 on Feb. 22.

“I waited for almost a month and half to get a call back from them about the status of my benefits,” said Adam Harjung, a Fox River Grove, Illinois, construction worker idled by the pandemic. “I had to call [state Rep.] Martin McLaughlin’s office and ask a representative in the office to contact IDES, and then within a couple of days they called me after McLaughlin’s office contacted them.”

“I followed their steps and the following Wednesday my benefits were supposed to be deposited. They never came. No explanation. It’s been over a month since I last received benefits and I am still unemployed,” Harjung said.

Aggravating the problem, IDES offices have been closed for more than 400 days. Administrators said they may start virtual meetings with people, but not until after July when the new state budget allows them to buy the technology.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently offered sympathy. He also is asking lawmakers to put more money into IDES: $60 million in this fiscal year, out of funds Illinois is receiving from the federal government, and $73 million in the fiscal year starting July 1.

“Let me begin by just saying that when you’re in the most difficult moment of your life – when you’ve lost your employment and you need help – you ought to be able to get to it,” Pritzker told CBS 2 Chicago.

IDES Director Kristin Richards recently confirmed response times for the department’s virtual callback system are increasing for some taxpayers, forcing Illinoisans with complex unemployment issues to wait more than four weeks for help.

“We pay into it. That’s what it’s there for. And now I’m just sitting in limbo waiting to hear from unemployment to explain to me why I’m not collecting any money,” Harjung said. “They’ve had a year now to figure this out. It’s unacceptable.”

Lawmakers are not happy.

“The difficulties my constituents have had reaching the call center have gone on for 13 months now and is not getting better,” state Rep. Amy Elik, R-Alton, told ABC 7 Chicago. “They are so frustrated, they are disgusted by state government.”

The unemployment system has maintained a sizable backlog of claims since Pritzker first imposed COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, creating a surge of unemployment claims.

And then there are the growing number of fraudulent claims. IDES determined 1.1 million of the more than 3 million unemployment claims filed since the start of the pandemic are fraudulent, diverting money and resources from Illinoisians who need it.

“Since April 1, I’ve called them like 20-30 times. Most of the time, I just get put in the queue on the callback list and I end up having to call from a different number,” said Justin Neal, an unemployed nurse’s assistant from Springfield.

“People need this, that’s the most disappointing part. Those are bills that people are not able to pay,” Neal said. “I just really wish I could find the answers as to why this is happening but every time I do get ahold of an agent, it’s the same type of response: ‘Wait this amount of days and if nothing happens, call back.’”

Illinois’ unemployment rate still lags the rest of the nation and is the highest of all Midwestern states at 7.1%, leaving 436,400 Illinoisans looking for work. Of the Illinoisans who lost their jobs in 2020, black and female Illinoisans were hit hardest.

Black non-Hispanic workers in Illinois were 53% more likely to lose their jobs than Black workers in other states during the pandemic. Illinois’ working mothers were the largest group to drop out of the workforce, with 4.5% of them giving up looking for jobs, compared to 3.6% nationally.

Illinois’ job outlook is not good, and Pritzker’s drive for more taxes isn’t helping.

He has proposed nine new taxes worth nearly $1 billion that specifically hit at job creation. He is also rumored to be pursuing cancellation of the state version of a tax credit designed to help small businesses through the COVID-19 economic downturn, which could cost them between $500,000 and $1 billion.

Pritzker’s call to pour more money into a broken system seems familiar. More money for IDES. More money for a state that deficit spent in each of the past 20 years. More money for public employee pensions.

How long before Illinoisans tire of waiting for an answer and just hang up?

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