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Illinois Has Far Fewer Staffers Working Unemployment Phone Line Than Some Comparable States

CHICAGO (CBS) -- You call and it's busy.

You call back and there's a recorded message, and then dial tone.

You keep trying, and nothing.

That's what people applying for unemployment keep sharing with us, and their situations are growing direr by the day.

We have uncovered what is behind some of the madness, and it's simple.

As CBS 2's Tara Molina reported Wednesday night, we know Illinois isn't alone in this. Unemployment offices are overwhelmed across the country.

So we reached out to departments in states with similar population sizes, to see how they're handling the increase in calls - and we were surprised by what we learned.

"It's frustrating," said David Dillon, who has been calling and calling and calling again.

We've heard concerns like Dillion's and Antoinette Merridith's every day for weeks now with people trying to reach Illinois' Department of Employment Security to file for unemployment or to fix issues they had filing.

"The bills are still piling up," Merridith said. "I'm calling every day. I can't get anybody on the phone no matter what number I call."

"There's only so many calls, I understand, that they can take at a certain time," Dillon said.

But they find themselves waiting days, even weeks, to get through and finish what they couldn't online.

According to the state, 173 employees are working to answer and process calls to the unemployment line in Illinois. We wanted to know how other states are handling those calls.

So using population data, we reached out to them.

First, we checked with states with smaller populations than Illinois.

Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency said it has 500 people answering phones in their offices.

Georgia's Department of Labor said they have between 300 and 400 employees answering their calls.

Ohio released a statement saying they have moved numerous employees from other departments to handle unemployment claims – along with other innovations:

"We also have taken an all-hands-on-deck approach to our call centers and transitioned hundreds of employees from other program areas to help staff them, increasing its size from 42 to 1,602 people. We also extended our call center hours for PIN resets and applications from originally only 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays. In addition, this past weekend, we launched a new phone workflow that includes an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, which increased our ability to handle 6,000 calls concurrently. A self-service IVR was also added to reduce the need to speak to an agent when many folks simply want an update on their claim. With this functionality, they enter their Social Security number and PIN and receive an update. Even so, we have received over a half million calls yesterday and over a half million calls Monday."

New York, a state with a population significantly bigger than that of Illinois, has 3,000 people on the Department of Labor's phones seven days a week - up from just 400 per day, five days a week, before the crisis. The New York State Department of Labor added in a statement:

"The number of phone ports has been increased from 1,000 to 10,000, and we continue to add members to this team to increase our capacity. Our website is now supported by over 60 servers, up from just 4 before the COVID-19 crisis. Our new online unemployment benefits application, which is supported by Google Cloud infrastructure, can scale to meet demand."

"I refuse to quit," Merridith added. "I refuse to give up."

Molina asked the state if our staffing numbers are changing at all moving forward. A representative said they will have updated information available on Thursday, when we have new unemployment numbers will also be released.

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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