CHICAGO — It’s been a month since millions of Americans lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic — and the state says it’s finally ready to handle the historic influx of unemployment claims.
In just five weeks, Illinois saw more than 513,000 initial unemployment claims. That’s more than the Illinois Department of Employment Services received in all of 2019, Gov. JB Pritzker said Monday.
The unprecedented job losses led to people flooding the state’s outdated website and phone lines, frustrating many filers who couldn’t get through.
“The unemployment claims process has been a source of hardship for all too many Illinois residents, as it has been for dozens of states across the nation,” Pritzker said. “So many families are hurting at a scale this country hasn’t seen in any of our lifetimes.”
Pritzker said Monday the “around-the-clock” work happening at IDES is paying off. The state overhauled and sped up its unemployment website, expanded call center capacity and hired an outside firm to build a system so independent contractors and gig workers can apply, as they had previously not been eligible by unemployment benefits.
Since March 1, Employment Services workers have put in a collective 6,500 hours beyond their normal work days, Pritzker said. More than 270,000 people have received payments totaling over $200 million.
These workers “did in a month what might normally take most of a year,” the governor said.
Pritzker also waived a traditional one-week delay in payments so people can get two weeks’ worth of benefits in their first payment. And last week was the first week the state was able to sent out an extra $600 per week for people receiving benefits March 29-July 25. That’s fully implemented in Illinois and first payments are “already out the door,” Pritzker said.
And to handle the influx of applicants, Employment Services brought back recently retired staff workers while allowing vulnerable staff to work from home, updated the phone system capacity by 40 percent and expanded daily call center hours.
The state is also adding a call center with 200 agents who who will assist in application and certification process, the governor said.
“This virus has claimed the lives of hundreds of Illinoisans. It has stolen the good health of tens of thousands more. And it has disrupted the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands,” Pritzker said. “The challenges workers and families are facing today is something my whole administration thinks about each and every day as we’re simultaneously trying to fend off health consequences of coronavirus.”
What About Gig Workers?
Since mid-March, Block Club Chicago has sought answers on behalf of independent contractors and gig workers who are not allowed to work but also don’t qualify for unemployment benefits.
The CARES Act, passed by Congress late last month, ensured gig workers would have access to unemployment benefits — but Pritzker said Monday the Department of Labor subsequently tried to block benefits to many contract workers.
“It has taken the U.S. Department of Labor weeks to issue guidance to the states, and they promulgated confusing and very stringent regulations that attempt to severely limit who can actually qualify,” Pritzker said.
The state ultimately “contracted with an outside firm to help us stand up a new system to help us get these benefits to as many Illinoisans as possible despite the labyrinthian regulations,” Pritzker said.
As the system is built, unemployed 1099 or “gig” workers can still file for benefits, Pritzker said. If they’re ruled ineligible because they’re a contract worker, their applications will be automatically moved to the new system so they can be processed in early to mid-May.
When the new system is up and running by May 11, Employment Services will begin processing these claims. Pritzker predicted such workers would start receiving funds in mid-May.
When asked why other states are able to process these payments already, Prizker said Illinois will not receive federal money until May. Other states might be able to dip into a rainy day fund to pay such workers sooner, but Illinois does not have such funds, he said.
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