CHICAGO (CBS) — In response to multiple complaints, an Illinois state senator is calling for a discussion on penalty weeks preventing people from receiving unemployment benefits.
State Sen. Linda Holmes (D-Aurora), who is in charge of the committee that handles unemployment, asked that the issue be put on the agenda for the committee’s Wednesday meeting for discussion, CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov has learned.
Holmes told Kozlov she had been unaware of the penalty week situation, but it concerned her, so she moved to take it up with the committee.
An Illinois Department of Employment Security spokeswoman said the law would have to change to defer pandemic-related penalty weeks.
Holmes said the issue should be addressed “immediately – people are desperate.”
Kozlov reported she has received numerous emails from people who are first told they qualify for benefits through the Illinois Department of Employment Security, but are then told “deductions exceed benefits.”
In many cases, though not all, these are penalty weeks that have been issued because of previous unemployment claims.
Penalty weeks have prevented Anthony Gordon from receiving unemployment. Almost a month after being laid off from his Ford job at the plant near 126th Street and Torrence Avenue, he is being told he cannot get any unemployment benefits until his penalty weeks are over.
The weeks were slapped onto his account after he got $1,700 more than he should have.
“But I already had paid that money back already, so I’m trying to figure out what was going on, and all I’m getting is they’re saying I have a penalty, so I don’t know what to do,” Gordon said.
Adding to his panic, no one at the Illinois Department of Employment Security can tell him how many penalty weeks he faces – and his stimulus money is already gone.
Single mother Marissa Strickland was also told she was told she would not get any money for 20 weeks.
It is a penalty for a benefit overpayment back in 2018.
“They actually took a portion of my tax return for this year, and it’s all paid back in full,” Strickland said.
Strickland has the letter to prove it. But the 20-week no-benefit and no-retro-pay penalty sticks.
Strickland said it also means she can’t get the unemployment portion of any stimulus help either.
John, a furloughed auto industry worker who wants his full name withheld, told Kozlov Tuesday that he was hit with penalty weeks too.
“This stems from an overpayment of approximately two years of pay in 2018, which I have paid back, and I thought my slate was clean,” he said.
An employment attorney said there could also be several reasons why deductions might exceed benefits so as to preclude unemployment payouts besides penalty weeks, such as a required child support payment or a filing error.
But on Tuesday, Kozlov talked to yet another Illinoisan who is in the same situation, but who said none of those things apply to her.
“It’s getting bad, Dana,” said Claribel Diaz. “It’s getting really bad.”
Diaz can’t get answers, and doesn’t understand why she isn’t getting any unemployment benefits. The mother of toddler Sharon left her collections job a month ago, qualified and certified for unemployment, and then got a notice saying her deductions exceeded her benefits. She has no idea what it means.
“I don’t know, and that’s why I have come to you,” Diaz said. “I don’t owe the agency no money. I know I don’t.”
CBS 2 has learned as of last week, 18,165 people in Illinois waiting out penalty weeks before receiving any new benefits – even though they have qualified. In some cases, they are waiting up to 26 weeks.
And while IDES said all the cases involving penalties are fraud, many say the issue was all a mistake. But they often can’t get a hold of anyone at IDES to talk about it, and if they do, they are told they have to appeal to the courts – most of which are closed.
Thus, they are stuck in a benefits black hole.
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.