SPRINGFIELD — Over the past 11 months, the Illinois Department of Employment Security has seen a deluge of 1.8 million new unemployment claims brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. With all of the new claims and people coming into the unemployment system for the first time, the agency has had a tough time keeping up with all of the demand.
This has created many problems, exacerbated by a system that largely cuts down on unemployment agencies like IDES during better economic times, such as the period before the pandemic.
"States are generally incentivized by the federal government to cut resources during times of low unemployment," said Kristin Richards, acting director of IDES during a Senate Labor Committee hearing Wednesday. "In times of low unemployment, agencies tend to not have the resources that they need to plan ahead and plan for large, widespread dislocations."
Thanks to this system, legislators have received numerous complaints about getting services from IDES, from delays in receiving payments to bad customer service. With people continuing to flow into the unemployment system during the pandemic, here is what you need to know about IDES and its current predicament.
According to its website, IDES is "the code department of the Illinois state government that administers state unemployment benefits, runs the employment service and Illinois Job Bank, and publishes labor market information."
The state unemployment numbers that are frequently cited as the measure of the job market come from IDES. It also provides various services to help people if they are furloughed or laid off.
IDES is participating in four different federal programs and has also opted into a fifth program.
The four programs are: the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC); Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA); Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) and Extended Benefits (EB). The agency has also opted into Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation (MEUC). That one is still being discussed between Illinois and other states.
IDES is being criticized on both sides of the aisle for slow response times for receiving service, particularly for people calling in for assistance. Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, noted that due to the glacially slow response, some people have given up on receiving their benefits.
"I personally believe that many of my constituents and, I'm sure, many of the citizens of Illinois that have filed, have just given up," Rose said. "This was like some Franz Kafka novel combined with Atlas Shrugged. When they needed us the most, they were left waiting and have since moved on."
Richards said the agency can normally get to calls in one to two weeks. For claims that are moving through the system, however, she said it could take four to six weeks for the agency to get back to people.
The issues with IDES are in large part due to staffing shortages, with the agency saying that 381 positions were vacant. Of those 381, 87 are currently going through the hiring process while 200 have yet to be filled.
Those 87 positions will take time in order to be properly filled. Richards said that the hiring process for new full-time employees takes three to six months.
Richards said that staffing is the quickest and most important way to fix the issues with getting responses. In lieu of full-time workers, IDES has had to hire 750 temporary contractual workers to work in the call center, with 1,500 more workers to be added in the coming months.
"We are continuing to staff up and train for our call center," Richards said. "It is a sprint exercise because people just need a phone call back."
IDES is currently working with the U.S. Department of Labor, the FBI and the Illinois Attorney General's office to provide information on people or groups who may be responsible for sending out fraudulent information to people across the state.
At the moment, more than 1 million fraudulent claims have been stopped by the agency. They did not make clear at the hearing how much they had recovered, or that law enforcement had done so at this time.
They can call the agency at a toll-free number, 800-244-5631, for help with their unemployment claims.
In addition, they can also send an online contact form at this address: https://www2.illinois.gov/ides/Pages/Contact-IDES_Form.aspx.
They can contact IDES' Special Investigations Unit for reporting benefit fraud at (800) 814-0513, selecting option 2.
Because of COVID-19 and security issues, IDES is keeping its facilities closed for the time being. IDES employees are currently working from home until their offices can safely open.
There is no set timetable for the reopening of the offices. Richards said that the department was thinking of ways that they could make the process better when offices eventually reopen
"We have to commit to what this is going to look like going forward for us when offices reopen," Richards said. "We are brainstorming ideas around this and looking for solutions."