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Illinois Department Of Employment Security Offices Remain Closed; Other States Reopening Offices

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Illinois Secretary of State offices are open. So are courthouses. But unemployment offices are closed while thousands of jobless workers in Illinois remain in need. Many who can't get through to the Illinois Department of Employment Security over the phone and can't wait for their benefits any longer have resorted to driving to the offices, but they are closed. They have been closed. And while it's not clear when they will open, CBS 2 found other states finding ways to open back up safely.

"All these facilities are open, but the one thing the state of Illinois needs more than anything else is the IDES offices open. We don't care about anything else," said Keith Kelly.

Kelly said the secretary of state's office won't help him make ends meet.

A construction consultant, Kelly saw business dry up as soon as the pandemic hit. But getting through to IDES for help didn't happen as quickly.

"How many people have given up? You can't get through to anybody," he said.

Months later he still hasn't.

"I need those offices open," he said. "I need to be able to get to somebody."

Kelly is not alone. Ed Walter worked construction, too.

"I can't pay my bills," Walter said.

After waiting three weeks for a call from IDES just to have the worker hang up on him, Walter, desperate for help, drove to an office.

"The doors are locked, but they're in there working," he said. "It almost seems like they're keeping it closed because they don't want to deal with these problems."

Posted signs say they're still closed for everyone's health and safety, but CBS 2 found that states across the country have been able to prioritize both while opening their offices to the public.

"We've made sure workers are safe," said Shelley Zumwalt, interim director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission."Being transparent has been the goal."

Zumwalt said they were able to open in June with restriction and safety precautions in place.

"We did a ticketing system that allocates a time for a band of numbers, so people can take their number, leave and come back," she said.

They've implemented temperature checks, social distancing, mask enforcement and increased, specialized cleaning.

"I think really having a person you can see and is empathetic, who will fix your problem and make sure when you walk out that door something is done, that goes a long way," she said.

Recognizing frustrations are high, Zumwalt said they have at least one state trooper at every office.

"I really think the good will what was shown opening those offices and doing those claims events really has paid off for the agency."

There are at least six other states whose offices are open to the public in some capacity right now. Could any of what's working for them work in Illinois?

CBS 2 reached out to the state with those questions, asking when these offices will re-open. A spokesperson said they're working with health officials on that but didn't indicate it will happen any time soon. She called reopening here quote "uniquely challenging."

IDES released the following statement:

IDES is working closely with CMS and IDPH to produce guidelines that ensure a safe and healthy reopening plan for our employees and to the public.  As this planning is being developed, the Department is prioritizing the physical health and safety of our employees, and that of claimants, while bearing in mind social distancing requirements that will need to continue to be followed as offices reopen.  IDES will provide an update regarding the local office reopening plan, and projected timeframe as it develops, when available.

On background: IDES continues to receive around 200,000 unique callers each week. This makes reopening local offices uniquely challenging at a time when we need to avoid long lines and large crowds. We would also need to have staff help with crowd control which takes staff away from other responsibilities. This has been a challenge in other states (e.g., eight hour long unemployment line in Kentucky). We are working through all of these challenges to ensure reopening is done in a way that is most helpful for claimants.

Those waiting are calling for something more.

"Be more accessible to the public," said Walter.

"We need the unemployment offices open," said Kelly.

CBS 2 will keep checking back with IDES and the governors office to find out when those who need help can walk through a door at the offices again

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