The Illinois unemployment system is still a hot mess

As with most states, the unemployment rate in Illinois has been steadily climbing during the pandemic shutdown with many workers being sent home from otherwise entirely viable jobs. But not to worry, right? All of those workers are eligible for unemployment benefits and the federal government has generously enhanced those benefits to the point where some people are making more money staying home than they did at their jobs. So everyone should be just fine.

Except, of course… they’re not. While the benefits systems in many states have staggered under the vastly increased number of people seeking to enroll, the situation in Illinois appears to be one of the worst. The system is overloaded and completing the application process online is proving impossible for many. And even if you somehow miraculously get your claim submitted, for many people, weeks have gone by and they still haven’t gotten their first benefits check or even an acknowledgment that their claim has been approved. Calling the hotline to ask for help is a hopeless task as you can’t get through the phone menu without being informed that there’s nobody available and having the call disconnected. CBS Chicago spoke to a number of people stuck in this situation and it certainly sounds grim.

“We are all lost and no one sounds like they are in a hurry to fix the system,” said legal administrator Idde Colon.

CBS 2 wanted to give people like Colon a platform.

“Why does the burden fall on us? We didn’t do anything wrong. Why is it our job to sit and call for eight hours straight,” asked Thomas McCarty, who works in the food service industry.

“It says you can check the status of your claim on the website,” McCarty said. “No! You cannot check status of any kind on that website.”

“On one day, I called 19 times,” Colon lamented. “It’s been 83 times since 7:30 this morning. It hangs up on you exactly. Every option hangs up on you.”

Unemployed workers are spending day after day trying to deal with the system online. Others are calling dozens of times daily, spending all of their time navigating through phone menus only to reach a recording saying they system couldn’t respond to them at this time. Meanwhile, the rent is already overdue, along with the rest of their bills, and for some, food is in short supply.

Why is the unemployment claims system such a disaster? One problem is that Governor Pritzker has been insisting for the past month that the system was operational and just needed a little time to catch up with the increased demand. He stuck with that line until just this past Thursday when he finally admitted that there were problems and that change was on the way.

“There are thousands of people, there’s no doubt about it, who have had difficulty using the online system, and then when they can’t, having difficulty getting through to a body,” Pritzker said.

But he said IDES has “used every avenue available” to expand capacity.

“They have been working every day to expand our systems and capability to meet the increased need as quickly as possible,” Pritzker said.

It’s not as if this is a problem that just cropped up this week and the Governor is scrambling to react. These issues were already causing problems more than a month ago and Pritzker was promising new computer systems to handle the increased demand back then. Apparently not much has changed.

At the moment, the Governor is blaming the fact that there were personnel cuts at the department that handles these claims over the past few years and that the computer systems haven’t been upgraded “in years.” If that’s the case and he already knew about it, why weren’t they already working on preparing that system for a rainy day? No boom cycle lasts forever and there was always going to be another recession sooner or later.

Governor Pritzker clearly needs to knock off this ostrich act, pull his head out of the sand, and figure out how to get things back on track. He’s the one who wanted the job and now it’s his responsibility to make it right.