GOP lawmakers are again demanding answers from Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Employment Securities over the state’s processing of unemployment benefits.
Since COVID-19 hit Illinois, IDES has been inundated with unemployment claims from Illinoisans impacted by the state’s stay-at-home orders and pandemic-related recession.
As a result, wait times for people trying to contact IDES customer service lines grew longer.
But even after months of known issues at IDES, Republicans claim they’re still being kept in the dark about what’s happening at the agency. Major problems include those seeking to apply for unemployment benefits experiencing major delays in getting a call back from the agency to get certified. Additionally, Illinoisans have received bills from the state demanding repayment of unemployment benefits they never requested or received.
Republicans say IDES representatives have been slow to respond to the lawmakers’ questions. State Rep. Mike Marron (R-Fithian) turned to alternative methods in order to get a meeting with the department’s director, livestreaming himself on Facebook standing outside the agency’s Springfield office two days in a row last month.
“I tried futilely for several days to get in touch with someone at the department for an explanation of what was going on,” Marron said. “I finally felt like I had to stage a protest and get some recognition and try to draw some attention to this.”
Lawmakers also want a better understanding of how many Illinoisians were subject to unemployment fraud. IDES has reported there have been cases where people’s personal information has been stolen and used to improperly request unemployment benefits in their name.
In a separate press conference Wednesday, Pritzker said IDES has not experience any sort of data breach, but explained fraudsters have been able to apply for unemployment benefits using Illinoisans’ personal information, which could have been acquired in massive data breaches in the last several years, like 2017’s Equifax breach.
“There’s not been a hack detected in our systems,” Pritzker said “People are using information that they’ve garnered from other hacks that have occurred, sometimes a couple of years ago.”
The governor said hackers may have held onto certain Illinoisians’ data information for years and only recently used it to fraudulently request unemployment benefits.
Additionally, lawmakers are asking for clarity over benefits directed towards so-called gig economy workers --, independent contractors like barbers tutors or freelancers.
State Rep. Jeff Keicher (R-Sycamore) said he’s heard from many of these workers, who received benefits under the federal Pandemic Uninsurance Assistance program. Keicher said some of those workers’ income levels were misreported by IDES. As a result, these recipients are now being charged back pay on overpaid benefits.
Republicans say instead of working with lawmakers to address the situation, Pritzker has lambasted the GOP for not supporting state budgets that would have increased funding to IDES. The agency has seen consistent drops in staffing levels for more than a decade.
In response, Republicans said tit-for-tat statements between the governor and lawmakers are not helping Illinoisians.
“They are frustrated that this governor has failed time and again to take ownership of very serious problems and instead chooses to play petty politics suggesting that the super minority party of Republicans in the legislature is somehow the root cause of all this?” Keicher said. “It just doesn’t bear fruit.”
Republicans want to hash out solutions in a committee hearing when the legislature meets for a so-called Lame Duck session beginning Friday.