DOWNTOWN — Illinois has processed more than 1 million unemployment claims since March 1 — and even more claims are set to be filed as the city opens up its system to 1099 and gig workers beginning Monday.
The enormous uptick in claims has required the state to drastically overhaul its system and bring in more employees. The spike is fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced a shutdown of many businesses and kept people at home, leading to significant job losses across the state.
Starting Monday, the Illinois Department of Employment Security will have 100 new agents start so they can handle the claims being filed by 1099 and gig workers, Gov. JB Pritzker said at a Thursday press conference.
“The devastation this pandemic has wreaked upon our economy, the economy of the United States and that of the world is mind-boggling,” Pritzker said. “The swiftness and immediacy of its economic impact has never been seen before. Businesses large and small have shuttered. Families have had their savings wiped out.”
Illinois paid out more than $2 billion in unemployment benefits in the first four months of 2020, the governor said. That’s $500 million more than what the state paid out in all of 2019.
More than 1 million people filed unemployment claims in the nine weeks after March 1, Pritzker said. In comparison, during the first nine weeks of the Great Recession in 2008, 180,000 people filed claims in Illinois.
“The financial toll on the people of Illinois has been breathtaking and it’s unprecedented,” Pritzker said.
The decade-old filing system was overwhelmed by the onslaught of claims, Pritzker said.
Filers have complained about being unable to get through over the phone or online for weeks, and Pritzker acknowledged the problem.
The existing system was simply unfit to handle the surge in cases, but Employment Security employees “have been working every day to expand our systems and capability to meet the increased need as quickly as possible,” Pritzker said, adding that “in many ways, they’ve been forced to build a new airplane while flying it.”
Employment Security employees have worked thousands of overtime hours to process claims. The agency brought back retired employees and hired more people to help. The agency also increased the daily hours of its call center, updated its phone system and overhauled its web platform.
The state also partnered with contractors to build a new system for 1099 and gig workers, who so far have been unable to file for unemployment or receive desperately needed funds because the current system was not built to process their type of employment.
To prepare for the gig workers and help other people who are filing, the department set up a new call center and there will be 100 new agents by Monday. That will be scaled up with another 100 agents in the future, Pritzker said.
Gig and 1099 workers should apply for unemployment now, Pritzker said. They’ll be rejected, but that is required so they can be moved into the system for 1099 and gig workers and their application can be processed starting Monday.
The new system built to serve independent contractors will be able to process more than 140,000 claims per hour, the governor said. He said the system is a big improvement over the one filers have had to use so far.
About 75 percent of Illinois claimants receive their first payments within two weeks of filing, he said.
“This is an enormously difficult time for many, many Illinoisans. The economic pain of this pandemic is enormous for Americans in every state, no matter their religion, the case count in that state or the political leanings,” Pritzker said. “It’s my promise to every Illinoisan that I won’t rest until we get our residents the support they need to get through this battle.”
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