Thousands are applying for unemployment benefits in Illinois after being laid off due to COVID-19. Credit: Sam Cholke/DNAinfo

CHICAGO — Legal aid groups have developed a free virtual assistant to help people struggling to apply for and receive unemployment benefits.

The unemployment web-bot, called Benny, can help Illinois residents who have hit a roadblock trying to get their benefits by giving them up-to-date, reliable advice on what to do.

Unemployment seekers can use the online tool by going to and answering questions about the circumstances they are facing. Benny is programmed to give Illinois residents a plan of action for getting their benefits. It directs them to online articles, forms and other resources they can use.

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Benny can help people understand eligibility requirements before they apply and guide people who have applied but haven’t heard back yet.

People who have been denied unemployment benefits can also use Benny to help them appeal the decision, according to the attorneys at CARPLS Legal Aid and the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, the group that developed Benny.

If someone is in a situation where they need the help of an attorney to navigate a dispute to get their benefits, Benny connects them to free legal aid groups in their area and attorneys “who are experienced in unemployment claims,” said Pat Wrona, legal director at CARPLS Legal Aid.

“Where you say, wait a second, no, I do deserve to get these benefits and you’re going to have to be explaining that and arguing that to the agency … that certainly is where legal aid is available to step in,” Wrona said.

Benny the unemployment benefits bot can help people struggling to access their benefits. Credit: Provided

The window to appeal an unemployment claim is limited to 30 days, Wrona said, and the process is bureaucratic and confusing. The organization developed Benny as a way to provide 24/7 online support to make that process easier, and to help people recognize when they need additional support from a legal professional.

“Having a lawyer in a proceeding like that really can make a difference,” Wrona said. “If you are not an attorney, it’s kind of hard to not only put your hands on those rules, but to also interpret what they mean and what they mean in your situation.”

CARPLS runs a legal aid hotline that can be reached at 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday at 312-738-9200.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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