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Lawmakers Demand Pritzker Open Unemployment Offices To Public, Want Answers On Fraud Payments

Derek Cantù/ NPR Illinois

Illinois’ Department of Employment Security has received more than 1.3 million fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, the state isn’t making public how much money has actually been paid out to fraudsters.

Gov. JB Pritzker this week said an ongoing federal investigation into pandemic-related unemployment fraud in states across the country makes it hard to get an accurate count of how much Illinois has paid out to fraudulent claims.

Many instances of fraud can be attributed to Illinoisans’ personal information being stolen — such as through massive data breaches like the 2017 Equifax hack — and used without their consent or knowledge until they receive a bill in the mail.

Pritzker also pointed to the complexity of counting an ever-changing number of Illinoisans receiving unemployment benefits as people go back to jobs after being out of work at perhaps various times throughout the pandemic if their industry’s operational ability is contingent on COVID restrictions.

“There are people who are applying even now for unemployment and people who are reapplying to make sure that they can continue to get their unemployment,” Pritzker said. “Obviously, all that data, as well as people who've rolled off unemployment, all that's being looked through.”

But Republicans say that’s not an acceptable explanation, and say they’re entitled to this information from Pritzker’s office.

State Rep. Martin McLaughlin (R-Barrington Hills) at a press conference on Thursday said he asked the Illinois Department of Employment Security in a committee hearing months ago for details on how they will track unemployment fraud.

“To date, I have not received any of the metrics that will be used for measurables,” McLaughlin said. “And I think I asked at that meeting, if I can recall, what is an acceptable amount of fraud, and again didn't get that answer as well.”

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are also urging Pritzker to reopen unemployment field offices — which have been closed for over a year — in order to better handle fraudulent claims and other customer service issues.

Throughout the pandemic, IDES employees have been working remotely, assisted by contractors hired last spring to help with the unprecedented deluge of unemployment claims in the pandemic’s first few months.

But with long wait times for calls back and no in-person appointments with unemployment officers to sort out complicated cases, many out of work Illinoisans began turning to their local elected officials, whose district offices became de facto unemployment triage centers last spring and summer.

McLaughlin said like many lawmakers he has been regularly inundated with calls and emails from constituents. He criticized IDES’ customer service, saying it was both inefficient and not user friendly.

“They have an antiquated website,” McLaughlin said. “It's difficult to navigate. They have telephone response and a backlog that is severely lacking. It still takes weeks, sometimes months to get callbacks. And the staff, unfortunately, has been often rude to the constituents in my district, and these are constant complaints. Claimants routinely experience hang ups and disconnections. The fact that the physical offices are not open due to safety concerns needs to end.”

On March 5th, State Rep. Amy Elik (R-Alton) and 23 other lawmakers sent a letter to Pritzker and IDES asking permission for Illinoisans to use legislative district offices in order to communicate with unemployment officers by phone and video conferencing. Elik said she finally received a response back on May 10th.

“It wasn't very helpful,” Elik said. “It referred us to their callback system as an example of a convenient and efficient system and then referred our office to another state agency, [the Department of Human Services], to help constituents with housing programs; not any help with processing their unemployment claims, mind you.”

Pritzker and IDES had previously said the reason for delaying reopening unemployment field offices was due in part to security concerns, including numerous threats that have been directed toward the Springfield office.

But State Rep. Joe Sosnowski (R-Rockford) said that is “a bunch of nonsense.” He said the most serious security concern his caucus has been made aware of is the Springfield IDES office being graffitied last year.

“Yes, people get phone calls occasionally that are rude, but...unfortunately, our IDES employees are just as rude to customers,” Sosnowski said.

Sosnowski pointed to the Secretary of State’s driver services facilities as a good example of how to efficiently reopen.

“I got my sticker renewed just a couple of weeks ago,” Sosnowski said. “They were serving 30 customers. You know, [IDES] can easily provide security management, set appointments. You know, there's really no problem at this point. And again, it's been proven by many other state agencies.”

The bipartisan House Resolution urging the department’s field offices to reopen passed out of a committee last week and may be voted on by lawmakers later this month.

Derek Cantù is NPR Illinois' graduate student Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2021 legislative session.
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