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Illinois Unemployment Offices Have Been Closed Nearly A Year, And Many Say It's Causing Big Problems

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A new push has been launched to reopen unemployment offices in Illinois.

An advocate told lawmakers just last week the doors should not still be shut. CBS 2's Tara Molina is Working for Chicago and continued Monday on her months-long crusade to get a simple question answered – what's taking so long?

Molina has reported from outside Illinois Department of Employment Security offices for almost a year now. They have been closed all that time.

And at this point, Molina is told the closures are only hurting the people who are already hurting most.

"Right now at this time with the pandemic going on, it's hard for a lot of people out here," said Letanya Willis.

Willis said she needs in-person help because she couldn't finalize or file her claims appeal online.

That is why after waiting and waiting on a call, she drove to an unemployment office - only to find it closed.

"Don't have us out in the dark," Willis said.

The appeal she tried to file – and which she said she physically handed to a security guard outside the office, which the IDES does not advise - never made it into the system.

And by the time she got the callback from IDES she was promised, she had missed the due date and was stuck back at square one.

"If the office was open, I wouldn't be in this spot right now, this situation," Willis said.

Enter Jeremy Rosen, director of economic justice at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

"Those are the types of cases that are happening all over the state, just in terms of access to those offices," Rosen said. "People are turning our way, and we don't actually handle these cases directly."

The Shriver Center said it is involved now because at this point, the closures are hurting communities already hit the hardest by the pandemic.

"We think the people who are most being hurt are low-wage workers; members of the Black community; members of the Latinx community; people who are struggling the most," Rosen said.

Rosen elaborated on the disproportionate effect the closures are having on communities of color.

"If you look at so many people who are trying to apply for benefits who are in the Black community who are in the Latinx community, they may not have good internet access at home," he said. "They can't take advantage of any services that are available online, they're forced to rely on the phone system."

He also noted that the IDES callback system has not been working for everyone.

"People are not getting called back when they call the agency for over a month," Rosen said.

His voice is now joining others on a state level, asking IDES to find a way to safely reopen their doors - like the Illinois Secretary of State's Office and Department of Human Services have done.

"Nobody wants them to be harmed, in any way shape or form, but if our other state agencies can figure out how to maintain secure work places and also serve their customers, I believe the department of employment security can figure that out as well," Rosen said.

So Molina asked IDES about that again, and also again, spokeswoman Rebecca Cisco did not provide a possible reopening date:

"The answer to your questions remain the same. The Department's priority is to assist claimants when and where they need it. We continue working diligently to get benefits into the hands of eligible claimants who desperately need economic relief during a lingering pandemic that has upended the stability of many lives and families. IDES continues to look for opportunities to improve processes and communication with claimants to alleviate confusion where possible. However, opening local offices would only make callback times longer and create long physical lines and unsafe environments, like we've seen in other states, at a time when social distancing is critical. IDES has also received very credible threats, including a violent vandalization incident to a Springfield office and is committed to keeping staff and claimants safe. The Department continues to explore ways to productively open local offices in a way that ensures the health and safety of claimants and employees and will do so as soon as we are able."

But Willis said waiting in a line outside would be better than nothing.

"Open them up so they can do what they have to do for us," Molina said.

Molina asked the IDES spokeswoman if there are any plans in place to address those safety concerns so offices can reopen again. She did not receive an answer for that question – only, as the statement said, that the offices will reopen as soon as they are able.

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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