A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Illinois Department of Employment Security continues to take criticism over issues ranging from fraud to its response time for unemployment claims. State lawmakers say there needs to be a paradigm shift.
State representatives met with IDES officials in a virtual joint committee hearing Thursday to ask questions and relay their concerns with the unemployment process. Representatives such as Fred Crespo, D-Streamwood, say their constituents are dealing with mental health problems because of their inability to contact IDES. Crespo said that leaves legislators like him picking up the pieces.
"We have to see these people face to face,” said Crespo. “I can't tell you how many boxes of Kleenex my office has gone through, because we just don't even know what to tell them anymore."
State Rep. Amy Elik, R-Alton, says her office has dealt with cases that have been ongoing for weeks.
“One of my constituents said, ‘I never thought they could take my dignity along with everything else, but I was wrong,’” said Elik.
And state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Aurora, said there needs to be an emergency system in place.
“There are households that can weather the storm,” said Kifowit. “But there are households … that are on dire consequences, $200, trying to feed their family, trying to keep their car, trying to keep their home.”
Department officials said the agency was short on staff even before the pandemic. As of last month, the agency had 1,136 employees. Director Kristin Richards says the agency wants to increase its headcount to 1,400 employees for the upcoming fiscal year. She says most new hires have been brought on to help work with people claiming unemployment.
Meanwhile, IDES offices across the state remain closed. Richards said she is open to the idea of reopening the agency's offices, but she said operating in a safe and healthy environment remains a significant concern.
She said the rhetoric around unemployment agencies across the country has not been helping matters.
"The extent to which they have been criticized for not reacting quickly enough to this pandemic has really led to some very troubling statements being thrown at the agency and its staff," said Richards. “That, of course, doesn't engender confidence in our ability to reopen safely.”
Richards says the department has been receiving nine claims a minute since March of last year. She says having offices open would prevent the agency's employees from working through those claims because they would have to also focus on office crowd control.
“We need to move into the next few months with some forward thinking, openness to what this would look like,” said Richards.
Richards says the department is looking at the possibility of virtual face-to-face appointments.
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