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State Senator Calls On Gov. JB Pritzker To Waive Penalty Weeks For Unemployment During COVID-19 Pandemic

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Penalty weeks continue to financially cripple thousands of people in the state. Now one lawmaker is putting heat on the governor to change that.

State Sen. Celina Villanueva wants Gov. JB Pritzker to consider waiving penalty weeks until the pandemic is over, and she put it in writing. Some still serving out those weeks with no income hope it makes a difference.

"It's sad. It's sad it's happening," said Ken Scott.

Scott can't help but feel the governor has let him down. Out of work for months, he hoped unemployment benefits would help, but a prior unemployment overpayment has left him almost penniless for three months and counting.

"I was overpaid $143 two years ago," he said.

It's because of penalty weeks.

"Twenty-four is the penalty they gave me for $143 overpayment," he said. "It's been $7,000 that was supposed to have come to me that they have taken over penalties."

Scott is one of thousands of Illinois workers left waiting out unemployment penalty weeks during the pandemic. They're levied against someone's account because of a prior fraud determination.

"I remember talking to someone at unemployment about the $143. We came to the agreement that it was a mistake that they had made, and it was paid back," he said.

CBS 2 has spoken with dozens of people in the same situation. That's why Villanueva Wednesday wrote a letter to Pritzker asking for an immediate revision of the penalty week law during the pandemic, saying for so many of her constituents they have "unduly compounded their financial hardships."

In the past Pritzker has claimed only state lawmakers can change the penalty week law, but Villanueva contends he can do that himself. Scott heard that, too.

"When I contacted unemployment they said the governor could do it himself with the stroke of a pen," he said. "But I watched on t.v., the governor said it has to go through legislation, so their pointing their fingers."

Scott and so many others who have spoken with CBS 2 say it's time for finger pointing to stop and a temporary pandemic-related fix to begin.

"Absolutely it should be temporary," Scott said. "I mean, have some time of understanding of what people are going through."

Other states have taken action to work around or waive penalty weeks during the pandemic. Last spring State Sen. Linda Holmes discussed the possibility in a senate working group. It went nowhere during the spring session.  

CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov reached out to the governor's spokesperson and asked about his response to the letter but had not heard back by 6 p.m. Thursday.   

A spokesperson for Senate President Don Harmon said he is aware of what other states have done and is reviewing the issue with the caucus ahead of the session.

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