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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

B-N Workers Play Waiting Game For Jobless Benefits

Michelle poses
Michelle Sanders
Michelle Sanders is a massage therapist working in Bloomington. Because she's self-employed, she's been unable to claim jobless benefits during the stay-at-home order.

There’s really no socially distant way to do massage therapy. That’s put Michelle Sanders out of work.

Sanders, of Bloomington, hasn’t been able to see clients in about six weeks. And as a self-employed person, she also hasn’t been able to claim the unemployment benefits that are keeping thousands of other McLean County residents afloat during the stay-at-home order.

“It sucks, because I’d like to make money. I’d like to be doing my job. But right now, it’s not a job that can be done,” Sanders said. “There’s no good way to do massage with this out there.”

"Between the federal and state governments I'm relying on them functioning properly, and that's kind of terrifying."

Normally, self-employed workers don’t pay unemployment taxes and so typically are not eligible for unemployment benefits. The federal rescue package included money for a new, temporary benefits program for them. But that system is not up and running in Illinois yet. Gov. JB Pritzker has said that money is expected to be available May 11, blaming the delay on federal red tape.

Other than wait, Sanders told WGLT it’s unclear what she’s supposed to do. She’s also still waiting for her $1,200 federal relief payment, as she was hit by the glitch for those with $0 refunds last year.

“I will eventually be OK. But honestly, between the federal and state governments I’m relying on them functioning properly, and that’s kind of terrifying,” said Sanders, usually a Democrat.

Sanders’ husband works in IT and is still working from home full-time, so they’re living off his single income for now. And some have shown her kindness—or at least financial mercy as bills piled up. AT&T, Comcast, and Geico have all worked with her on delayed payments, she said. A few clients have purchased gift certificates for her massage-therapy services.

After the stay-at-home order was extended another month, Sanders pushed all her May appointments into June. She says she'll be ready with masks and sanitizer.

“I want to be on the other side of this. But I want to do it in such a way that we’re not risking everything just to get back to making money,” Sanders said.

‘Been A Big Relief’

The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) processed over 755,000 initial unemployment claims between March 1 and April 18—about 12 times the amount from this time a year ago. It paid out over $700 million in benefits during that time.

In a statement last week, IDES said it’s “has overhauled its website infrastructure, expanded web and call center capacity, and secured third-party vendor partnerships to further implement and streamline new programs that enhance filing capabilities.”

Indeed, for some in Bloomington-Normal the process of claiming benefits has been smoother.

A Bloomington woman in her mid-20s who does marketing for the restaurant industry said it took about an hour to initially apply for her benefits. She was then able to speak with a real person from IDES based in Champaign.

“I understand that was a unique experience. Not a lot of people have been able to physically talk to someone at the unemployment office,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used.

She applied for jobless benefits March 18—about 5,000 people did the same in McLean County last month—and she got her first payment April 8. Her most recent payment included the extra $600 per week that was included in the federal CARES Act.

“I’ve definitely been able to support more of the local restaurants. I’ve been able to take part in that, which is great for our household. We’ve continued to pay our rent, pay our bills, and keep everything paid on time. That’s been a big relief,” the woman said.

One of the hardest parts, she said, is “certifying,” which those receiving benefits need to regularly do to show they are able and available to work and are actively seeking work. For her first certification, she said she had to call IDES over 30 times to get through to an automated line.

“I was very thankful that my job put me in a position where I was able to receive those jobless benefits right away,” said the woman, who is on unemployment for the first time in her life.

Doug Johnson
Credit Courtesy / Doug Johnson
Doug Johnson
Before the coronavirus, Doug Johnson of Normal was a bartender and worked at Twin City Trivia. He's been out of work since mid-March.

Doug Johnson of Normal is a bartender who also works for Twin City Trivia. He's been out of work since mid-March. He said his jobless-benefits experience has been choppy.

After applying for benefits, Johnson said IDES sent him an empty prepaid debit card and then a rejection letter saying he didn’t make enough to qualify. He has appealed. He’s also still waiting for his relief money from the federal government.

“The hardest part is not knowing and not being able to get any answers out of anyone. That’s been really frustrating—not having the ability to actually go and speak with a person, or speak with someone on the telephone,” Johnson told WGLT.

Johnson didn’t just lose his job. He lost his wedding too.

He and his fiancé were supposed to get married March 21. They’ve postponed it to September. The deposits they got back are now serving as an emergency financial cushion as they live on his fiance’s income.

In addition to appealing his IDES rejection, Johnson contacted the IRS last week to find out what happened to his stimulus money. He’s hopeful he’ll get it.

“I’ve been cruising around on Facebook looking at different things, and it looks like a lot of people are having really similar issues. I feel like we’re all in the same boat unfortunately,” Johnson said.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

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