Nationally, unemployment filings during the coronavirus pandemic have topped one million for 16 consecutive weeks and the total number of people receiving benefits now stands at 18 million.
State agencies tasked with helping the unemployed are overwhelmed and lack both the infrastructure and manpower to deal with the crush of filings.
Gov. JB Pritzker hired a private company, Deloitte Consulting, to help the Illinois Department of Employment Security answer questions and process claims.
The $12.7 million contract, signed in late April, called for Deloitte to hire hundreds of agents to help staff a virtual call center.
But despite that effort, too many of the Illinois’ unemployed are still struggling to obtain benefits, or often even get someone on the phone.
WGN Investigates has spoken with numerous people in recent weeks who have been unable to reach an IDES agent, even when calling repeatedly.
“I had in five days, 400 attempts to get through [to] that 1-800-number,” Sherri Gray, of Streamwood, said.
State officials acknowledge the challenges but say the system has truly been overwhelmed.
In a four-month period ending July 1, IDES received more than 78 million calls, versus more than 3 million during the same period last year.
Of the calls received this year, less than 1 percent were answered.
“I do think we need to learn from this, not just in Illinois but every state in the nation,” Deputy Gov. Dan Hynes said.
Making matters even more complicated, there have been reports of other issues, such as people receiving debit cards with no money or benefits they didn’t need.
State Rep. Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro) is calling for a public hearing “where we can ask some questions of Deloitte” and its contract.
Whether that happens remains to be seen. In the meantime, Hynes said IDES plans to implement “a system for people to leave their number get a call back,” in hopes that will alleviate the frustration so many have been feeling.
Alexis Byrd from Downstate Illinois has struggled for months to obtain unemployment benefits.
“What we do when we rely on the government and we are just bounced around and we are ignored?” Byrd said.