SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – A joint committee of state representatives grilled officials from the Illinois Department of Employment Security Thursday. Many feel the IDES response hasn’t improved much since the COVID-19 pandemic started over a year ago. Committee members asked about fraud, pandemic unemployment assistance, and the IDES callback system.
IDES Acting Director Kristin Richards said the agency still receives roughly 20,000 tasks each workday. Their callback times vary depending on the topic since half of those are standard issues.
“Our response time there can be as quick as same day to a few weeks depending on the issue. The remaining claims are more complicated,” Richards explained. “Those adjudication and appeal issues take significantly more time to process with current response times upwards of four weeks.”
Contacting the department
Several members told Richards direct contact with call line employees is critical, especially when IDES offices haven’t reopened. Rep. Amy Elik (R-Fosterburg) explained one of her constituents has lived on $221 for the last seven weeks. Elik said he is still waiting on $4,500 of benefits to help fix his car and reconnect his internet service.
Sadly, the constituent has relied on Wi-Fi at a gas station in order to get internet. Elik said police were called because he was loitering. She suggested local constituent offices could set up a call with IDES officials for people with these complicated situations.
“I know that you said in the next couple weeks you’ll have liaisons,” said Elik. “But, I would just ask let us help our people. If that means they sit here and your agent calls here, please let us do that.”
Committee Chair Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego) suggested IDES should establish an emergency line for lawmakers to call for people “on the brink of homelessness.” She said some constituents are also close to having their vehicles repossessed after waiting months for benefits.
“There are households that can weather the storm,” Kifowit added. “But, there are households like Rep. Elik just said that are in dire consequences – $200 trying to feed their family, trying to keep their car, trying to keep their home – that this situation has caused.”
Hire more call line operators
Rep. Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest) emphasized the department clearly needs more employees answering calls and IDES should look into recruiting people desperate to get back to work.
“I mean, we have people who are waiting or looking for jobs because they’re unemployed,” Davis said. “How many of those people were given the opportunity to work at one of these call centers?”
“I would have to honestly ask the recruitment teams the extent to which they’re recruiting that out to the unemployment population,” Richards answered. “But, these are jobs that are out there that are available.”
However, Richards also noted IDES can’t circumvent state and federal hiring guidelines. For example, when the department posted call center vacancies in April, officials didn’t bring those new employees into the call center until September. Still, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle stressed their staff haven’t received calls back or answers from IDES in a proper manner.
“We are dealing with a tsunami of requests from very desperate people and the state has just fallen down on the job on this,” said Rep. Deanne Mazzochi.
The Elmhurst Republican said she’d like to see the department have a more innovative way of dealing with these changes since the “same old approach is clearly not working.”
The department is trying to help contractors and 1099 workers who received overpayments over the last few months. Officials explained the December federal pandemic relief allowed some overpayments to be forgiven. Illinoisans facing this issue have to receive a waiver from IDES to have it covered. Unfortunately, many have not. Rep. Lindsey LaPointe (D-Chicago) said claimants shouldn’t have to take the “proactive approach” to initiate a review of the overpayments.
“Why are we creating yet another layer and another way for people – either claimants or IDES staff – to make mistakes and just add to the giant pile of work that you all and we all are dealing with,” LaPointe asked.
She also noted the overpayment issue is something that the state can control during a time when many things are out of anyone’s control. Still, legal counsel for IDES explained individual claimants need to fill out the waiver before the department can act.