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Gov. Pritzker Acknowledges Illinois Unemployment System Has Been Unfit To Handle Surge, Says Change Is Coming

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday admitted that the Illinois unemployment system is "unfit to handle surge."

For weeks, we've been working for Chicago and reporting on these problems. At his daily coronavirus briefing on Thursday, the governor revealed changes are in the works.

As CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov reported, Pritzker said the system should be better able to handle claims, as planned, on Monday. It is due to a $22 million upgrade investment.

That investment is much-needed, considering our newsroom has received more than 400 emails from people asking us for help with various benefit issues in just the last couple of weeks.

While the governor acknowledged the state's unemployment system was unfit to handle the surge in claims.

"There are thousands of people, there's no doubt about it, who have had difficulty using the online system, and then when they can't, having difficulty getting through to a body," Pritzker said.

But he said IDES has "used every avenue available" to expand capacity.

"They have been working every day to expand our systems and capability to meet the increased need as quickly as possible," Pritzker said.

Pritzker said part of the problem is that IDES has had its funding cut over the past decade, and now has 500 fewer employees than during the Great Recession, and the computer system hasn't been upgraded in years.

Pritzker said while he knows thousands of people have had issues with the overwhelmed unemployment system, the Illinois Department of Employment Security workers are doing their best to handle problems.

He said IDES staff has put in thousands of hours of overtime, increased call center hours, updated phone systems, added new phone lines, and overhauled the online filing system. The state also has hired new workers, brought back retired IDES staff, and brought in outside partners to help process the deluge of claims.

PUA, or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, launches Monday. Deloitte is one outside contractor responsible for the $9.5 million upgraded computer system and $12.74 million call center.

One specific purpose is to help previously ineligible gig or 1099 workers file for unemployment.

The state's contract with Deloitte states that 200 new employees will man the call center, with 50 allowed to be from out of state through Texas company Harte-Hankes Response Management. But Pritzker said out-of-state employees won't be needed.

"Every one of the people that is hired in that call center is from Illinois," he said.

The governor said 100 employees will be ready to take calls Monday and the other 100 will be added soon after. But with these upgrades, can the system handle a massive surge when gig workers go to apply?

"I believe that it will be able to handle the unemployment claims that come in under the PUA system," Pritzker said.

The new website for processing Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims will be able to process 140,000 claims per hour, according to Pritzker.

Pritzker said claimants can receive up to 39 weeks, backdated to the first week of unemployment.

But as CBS 2's Tara Molina reported Thursday night, not everyone we talked to is confident that the system will handle them any better.

Alejandra Montannez is one of thousands in Illinois who have been out of work for nearly two months with no access to unemployment benefits.

"Things are really tight right now," Montannez said. "I have a 9-year-old, and it's just us, and there's just been nothing."

And the biggest issue Montannez said she has faced is not being able to get through on the phone to the IDES.

"It's just been so frustrating," she said.

The governor said there are strict federal requirements surrounding unemployment benefits. One of them is that gig workers must first file for regular benefits and likely get denied, before they can file for PUA benefits starting Monday.

Hundreds of people have contacted CBS 2 about being unable to file unemployment claims since the start of the pandemic, and have said they got results after CBS 2 started asking questions.

CBS 2 is committing to Working For Chicago, connecting you every day with the information you or a loved one might need about the jobs market, and helping you remove roadblocks to getting back to work.

We'll keep uncovering information every day to help this community get back to work, until the job crisis passes. CBS 2 has several helpful items right here on our website, including a look at specific companies that are hiring, and information from the state about the best way to get through to file for unemployment benefits in the meantime.

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CBS 2's Tara Molina and Political Investigator Dana Kozlov contributed to this report.

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