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Despite Hiring More Workers, Illinois' Balky Unemployment System Continues To Vex Those In Need Of Money

CHICAGO (CBS) – CBS 2 is committed to Working for Chicago, getting those without jobs the help they need.

There are over 100 more call takers now helping to handle the flood of unemployment applications. But as CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman reports, applicants are still being blocked from getting money they desperately need by the state system that can't seem to handle the simplest of mistakes.

Illinois hired 140 people to handle the flood of applications for unemployment benefits, but applicants are still being blocked from getting money they desperately need because the system can't seem to handle simple mistakes.

Chris Szillage's mistake was made at the very beginning of his application: He put his last name first.

As a result, the furloughed teacher has been unable to fix it, and unable to get unemployment benefits he needs for his family.

"I try to be strong for my wife, my son and when you see a grown man, a 53 year old man upset, mad at his government, I don't know what to do," said Szillage, throwing up his arms in frustration.

Neither does Brenda Smith. She got her birth date wrong.

At least that's what the system seemed to tell her when she got this error message: "Your most recent start date cannot be prior to your birth date."

"You have to laugh about it or you'll cry," said Smith, whose job was to help people laugh, dressing up in costumes to entertain clients--from
kids in school, to seniors in nursing homes.

"I've lost about $4,000 in income so far," said Smith.

Like others, she's learned the IDES system is unforgiving.

"It doesn't give you the opportunity to correct something that is obviously wrong," Smith said.

She now spends her days calling phone numbers the state provides. But all she gets is a busy signal before the call is disconnected.

Even now, after the state has hired about 145 additional call takers, the problems continue, and there are questions about whether the new hires are adequately trained to do the job.

That's what Mae Pennese found out this week.

"It turned out to be absolutely incredibly difficult for them to handle this," Pennese said.

She got one of her social security numbers wrong on the application and has been blocked from getting about $6,000 in unemployment benefits so far.

"Having to deal with correcting that simple mistake is so frustrating," said Pennese, who is being treated for cancer on top of this.

During one of her many calls for help, an IDES employee actually answered the phone. "She just said she didn't know how to do
what needed to be done," Pennese said.

Then the worker made mistakes. She opened another account, but did not delete the first account and then gave Mae the wrong date to

Two days ago, another IDES worker fixed the mistakes, which also extended the time it will take to get her benefits. She objected.

"And he just hung up. Hung up the phone."

With thousands of applications for benefits every day, Gov. Pritzker said:

"Things are going to happen. I mean there's no doubt that mistakes are made. I just want you to know that for people who are continuing to have difficulties please keep trying. We've been doing our best to expand."

It's not fast enough for Chris and Brenda and Mae.

"If someone would just call me that knows what they are doing. Just call me. It can be fixed," said Mae.

An IDES spokeswoman told us the system was designed to catch fraudsters who make mistakes trying to collect other people's benefits.

However, legitimate applicants say they should at least be able to review the form to correct any mistakes they mistakenly made.

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