Unemployment Issues At Center of COVID-19 Conversation

By Benjamin Cox on April 13, 2020 at 7:40pm

Illinois GOP leaders blasted Governor J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Employment Security for its response to the state’s high rate of unemployment. IL House Majority Leader Jim Durkin held a virtual press conference to outline the problems that General Assembly members have been hearing about from constituents. “Every day, my office and my colleagues’ offices, Democrat and Republican, are inundated with calls and emails asking for help in filing for unemployment. These are people desperately asking for help, telling me they can’t afford to pay their rent, or buy their groceries for the family. These Illinoisans are desperate. They are frightened, which explains why the Illinois State Police were brought in to provide security for the Illinois Department of Employment Security employees. Those employees are working hard. They’re doing everything they can do. But clearly, the demand continues to exceed the manpower at IDES.”

Durkin read from three constituent emails expressing anger and frustration about the inability to access the website or to file benefit claims. Durkin then demanded that the issues be fixed immediately. 41st District Representative Grant Wehrli of Naperville said that he was told told to go away when he expressed his concerns about the topic to the governor’s office.

104th District Representative Michael Marron of Fithian said that IDES should have had a better plan in place once it was known that the governor was going to issue the stay at home order for the state. Durkin followed those sentiments in a question and answer session by saying that the Illinois Emergency Management Agency did not do a good job of predicting and planning for the unprecedented amount of unemployment claims.

Governor J.B. Pritzker answered those claims in his daily COVID-19 press briefing that followed. He said that the state has seen a record number of claims. “Through the five weeks from March 1st to April 4th, Illinois received 513,173 initial unemployment claims. That is greater than the total number of initial claims for the entirety of 2019 and five times greater than the claims filed in the first five weeks of the 2008 great recession.”

Pritzker said since March 1st, IDES has fielded 6.5 million online sessions and the 173-employee IDES call center has been processing thousands of calls each day. Pritzker said that the 579 employees in IDES have worked over 6500 hours of overtime in the last month to process claims. Pritzker says that IDES has also recalled recent retirees to help lighten the load of record work in the department. He also detailed some of the new technology being used: “We’ve also updated IDES’s phone system to increase 40% substantially reducing wait times. We also expanded daily call center hours to respond to high volumes after hours. To expand that capacity further, IDES is establishing an outside call center with an additional 200 agents all from Illinois who will assist with the application and certification process. Online, the web platform has been completely overhauled. The system has been moved to new hardware infrastructure significantly increasing capacity. Load times for webpages are now averaging less than a second. The agency has also sped up the application process by removing some of the normal verification checks that were slowing people down, replacing them with faster methods. Like other states, we implemented an alphabetized filing schedule to spread out the volumes of claims and provide all who are filing an easier and faster process.”

Prtizker says that tech companies Excensure, IBM, Pitney Bowes, and Deloit were brought in the last few weeks to help the state adapt programs to IDES’s infrascture to expedite processing further. Google AI, Quantify and Karaosoft has also partnered with the state to provide an FAQ bot service on the IDES website for filers to have questions answered anytime of the day. Pritzker says the program will roll out this week. Pritzker says in the meantime his office is working to expand unemployment benefits to those previously ineligible as well as trying to increase payments so residents can stay financially sound during the stay at home order.