OPINION: Unemployment benefits lag, leaving some residents questioning if they will ever come

Tyrone+Keoton+Jr.%2C+is+handed+an+unemployment+benefit+application+form+by+a+security+guard+behind+the+glass+doors+of+this+state+WIN+Job+Center+in+north+Jackson%2C+Miss.%2C+Thursday%2C+April+2%2C+2020.+The+job+centers+lobbies+are+closed+statewide+to+prevent+the+spread+of+COVID-19.+The+agency+encourages+residents+to+apply+for+their+benefits+on+line%2C+however%2C+the+system+has+been+stressed+by+the+large+numbers+of+applicants.+The+local+job+centers+are+making+paper+unemployment+applications+available+and+applicants+are+filling+them+out+and+pushing+them+back+through+the+mail+slots+or+doors+as+well+as+they+can.

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Tyrone Keoton Jr., is handed an unemployment benefit application form by a security guard behind the glass doors of this state WIN Job Center in north Jackson, Miss., Thursday, April 2, 2020. The job centers lobbies are closed statewide to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The agency encourages residents to apply for their benefits on line, however, the system has been stressed by the large numbers of applicants. The local job centers are making paper unemployment applications available and applicants are filling them out and pushing them back through the mail slots or doors as well as they can.

When Petra Heinzman walked into her office the Monday following Gov. JB Pritzker’s announcement to close restaurants, she didn’t expect what was about to happen. After 20 minutes at work, the catering account manager said that her supervisor sat her down and told her they were letting go of all hourly employees,  effective immediately. 

She was instantly stressed. 

“I don’t have another job or another source of income right now,” she said. “I didn’t have any savings or anything.”

Heinzman, a 26-year-old Humboldt Park resident, is one of hundreds of thousands of Illinois residents that were let go because of a shelter-in-place order that closes non-essential businesses.

The decision was made in light of a public health emergency, but with an estimated 78 percent of Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck, the state anticipated the drastic effect it would have on residents’ wellbeing. There is a twenty-fold in the number of Illinoisans unemployed, compared to those who have been infected with the virus.

In order to calm the fears of affected employees, Pritzker tweeted the website and phone number to apply for unemployment insurance. Even though the services are encouraged, many applicants are left to wonder when – and if – they will ever see those benefits. 

The safety net advertised, an expansion of unemployment insurance, was incapable of handling the requests and lacked direction, which leaves Illinois residents unsure how they would pay their rent. A possibility that, for some, is just as frightening as COVID-19.

When applying over the phone, applicants have reported that the phone lines have a busy tone or are answered by an automated response that says they are unable to take calls at this time.

“I called twice,” Heinzman said. “The first time I was put on hold. And then I called back again, and it said they were just experiencing high volumes of calls and that I would have to just call back and it hung up on me.”

If applying online, which has been recommended by the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES), residents have reported that the website consistently crashes.

Once an application has been processed, applicants receive a letter in the mail with similar information they received when submitting their application. The letter does not say when they should expect to receive financial support, but that they should certify on a certain day of the week, depending on the first letter of their last name.

People filing a claim for unemployment insurance have to certify that they have been unemployed on a biweekly basis. When calling to certify their unemployment, some have reported that the automated service to certify benefits delivers a busy tone, while others were able to get through without issues.

The governor has blamed tech issues for the problem applicants face while filing or certifying their benefits. He said that “not a lot of investment has been made in the state’s IT systems in [the] last ten years.” He announced that IDES is transferring the system “entirely over to a much more expansive foundational software system and server, so we won’t have any of those problems going forward.” 

In what appears like a move to put responsibility for faulty phone lines on former state leaders, he has failed to acknowledge that — in anticipation for nation-wide unemployment — his administration did not presumptively address these issues, leaving residents to fend for themselves while these kinks are worked out.

The lack of direction and feedback from the state has been stressful for applicants who have been unemployed for weeks, with no end date in sight. With phone lines backed up and the IDES website crashing, applicants can’t even call to find out what is going on with their case.

“It’s just frustrating because I think I’m doing everything right, but I haven’t ever gotten an email saying ‘Hi, you are confirmed,’” Heinzman said. “Like, there’s no for sure confirmation. It was just like, ‘You’re certified. Thank you for calling.’ But never letting us know like ‘you’re gonna get paid on this day,’ so you for sure did it right.”

IDES spokeswoman Rebecca Cisco told The DePaulia, “As I’m sure you can imagine, IDES is currently working through an unprecedented number of employment claims and questions.”

According to Cisco, the time an applicant applies to when they first receive a paycheck is two weeks. A time frame that hasn’t proved accurate for Henizman, who applied three weeks ago.

Heinzman was able to pay for her rent for April using her last paycheck. 

“What I’m nervous about is this upcoming rent payment,” she said. “And I am a little late on my utilities, so I’m nervous about that.”

Illinois is the 6th most populous state in the U.S. with more than 12 million residents. Yet, a WalletHub study, which compared the initial unemployment claims during the week of March 23 with the claims from the same week in 2019, found that Illinois ranks 44th in the U.S. for increase in claims.

The study found also that there was an 1829.93 percent increase in the number of unemployment insurance initial claims – from 9,230 the week of March 25, 2019 to 178,133 the week of March 23, 2020. This marks the fourth-lowest increase in the U.S.

The surprisingly small increase in claims may be directly related to obstacles in the application process – obstacles the governor failed to address before he made the decision to shut down non-essential workplaces in the state.

While the state transfers the IDES system to an entirely new foundation, Illinoisans go on rent strikes, fail to put food on the table and go deeply in debt. Students whose parents lost their job, can’t afford the proper resources for homeschooling; drivers are at-risk for car repossession; graduating seniors can’t manage their college application fees.

A reality the governor himself will never experience.