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Why Does Illinois' Unemployment System Keep Failing So Many People? A Quest For Answers Continues

CHICAGO (CBS) -- More than 65,000 new jobless claims were filed in Illinois the week of Nov. 16 – a whopping 40 percent jump from the week before.

The big question – will those out of work get help? All we know is that Illinois' unemployment system continues to Fail – with a capital F – the people out of work in Illinois.

CBS 2 Investigator Dorothy Tucker set out to get the answers taxpayers deserve from top managers at the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

"$6,184.22. $1,672.20," CJ Farrar read as he flipped through a pile of his bills. "It's approximately $20,000 total that I owe on the credit cards. And then medical bills are about $30,000 at this point."

Balances are ballooning for Farrar as he desperately battles to get unemployment benefits to feed his family.

"That's exactly what it was the whole time, just a huge fight to try and get my money that they owed me," said Farrar.

Tens of thousands of unemployed Illinoisans are struggling just like Farrar.

"I'm broke. I have $3 to my name," Darin Ortmann told CBS 2's Tara Molina in May. "I've broken down crying so many times just feeling helpless."

Dozens of people told CBS 2 how they're suffering under the strain – describing obstacles in their way like

"I'm so sad, I'm angry, and I need the money," Mayra Hernandez told CBS 2's Lauren Victory in June.

People trying to file for unemployment describe obstacles in their way like an overwhelmed website.

"I went to go certify my first time and I got an error message," said Farrar.

Others told us about a call center failing to keep up with demand.

"This money should be mine," Jackie Biederman told us in August. "But I can't even get through to somebody to find out where it is."

People also talk about glitches leading to dropped calls when a claimant has been waiting weeks or months to hear from an Illinois Department of Employment Security representative to help them with their particular problem.

"I heard a click looked down on my phone and I was disconnected," said Moika Long. "I was almost in tears."

Over the past eight months, CBS 2 has followed the rules and emailed IDES detailed questions. The reply? Usually, it has been a promise to get back to us "tomorrow," "in a couple of days," or "next week".

Too often, we never hear back. So we try to get answers in other ways.

For example, we tried through a public records request. The CBS 2 Investigators received internal reports giving us a behind the scenes look at what's going on with the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) website and the extra agents hired to handle the cascade of calls. The $22 million systems are both implemented and managed by Deloitte.

Michele Evermore, an unemployment policy expert at the National Employment Law Project said, "I understand this is a new problem."

Still, she is critical.

"There are new people who have to be trained, getting people up and running is difficult, but with this much money committed to the effort it should be smoother," Evermore added.

The reports CBS 2 obtained raise other concerns.

The week of Nov. 13, the latest PUA weekly status report we have shows as many as 79,000 people didn't get paid because the system couldn't verify their identities.

The Call Center Operations Report shows there are fewer agents working each day now than in the summer – in the low 300s on Nov. 13 compared to the mid-400s in the middle of August.

But did that translate into longer wait times for claimants? That's another question we'd like to get answered.

And the woman we'd like to hear from is Acting IDES director Kristin Richards. Last week was the first time she'd ever attended a news conference since taking over in August. She took the opportunity to boast about progress.

"We're happy to say that in many cases claimants can hear from us in one to two weeks or less," Richards said last week.

But that's not what we're hearing from our viewers.

"Five and a half weeks later, they called back," one viewer, named Gary, told us at the end of October.

"I've been waiting for the supervisor to call me to move my claim ahead since at least August," said another viewer in mid-November.

This is all unacceptable, according to Evermore.

"This far into the pandemic, people should be able to get a call back after a couple of days after all of the resources committed to call centers," she said.

At one point in CBS 2's quest to get answers, Tucker dropped in on an Employment Security Advisory Board meeting.

Many top managers including Richards gave presentations. Their initials and voices showed, but no faces appeared on the Zoom.

Tucker asked: "An insider tells us that there are technical glitches causing these dropped calls, I'd like to know whether the agency is aware of this problem. If you are not, why not? If you are, what is the agency doing about it?

Again, there were no answers. But we know IDES is watching and listening. CBS 2 obtained an internal memo describing a "negative news cycle" and warning workers not to make "comments to the media."

After six months, waiting weeks for calls and speaking with six agents and specialists, Farrar finally got the $16,000 IDES owed him. It's hardly enough to put a dent in his debt.

"As soon as you start trying to pay some bills and pay back some stuff, you're at nothing," he said.

Viewers like Farrar want relief and answers. CBS 2 has been trying – asking more than a dozen times to sit down with Richards to discuss long wait times, filing issues, discontinued benefits, technical glitches. The list is long.

We know Richards has given interviews to other media outlets, but so far not to CBS 2.

So Tucker called Richards and several other senior IDES managers – including the Chief Legal Counsel, the Chief Financial Officer, the Deputy Director, and the Acting Director.

Tucker tried to ask about the length of time it's taking some people to get benefits and about the time it's taking for CBS 2 to get answers from IDES. She got a couple of voicemails and a couple of referrals to the IDES spokesperson.

Tucker eventually reached Acting Director Richards – who was polite, but still didn't answer any questions.
CBS 2 may be frustrated, but people like Laura Rice are exhausted.

"I am at the point where I've tapped into my 403(b). I've tapped into other resources," Rice said. "I'm tapped out."

Rice and others can't afford to give up – and neither will we.

And we have to keep pushing, because once again, when we finally heard from the spokesperson for IDES about this investigation, she didn't answer our most pressing questions.

Instead, her response was that she needed more time to collect the information.

And again, there has been nothing about an interview with Director Richards.

Also From CBS Chicago:

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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