By Samah Assad, Tara Molina

CHICAGO (CBS) — Since the pandemic first tightened its grip on the country’s economy, Illinois has seen devastating job losses of its own.

Week by week, beginning in early March, the number of people who filed for unemployment skyrocketed. From March 1 to April 4 alone, more than 500,000 claims were filed. That’s more than the entirety filed in 2019, and five times greater than those filed in the first five weeks of the Great Recession in 2008.

More than 1 million people in Illinois have filed for unemployment in the last 11 weeks alone.

CBS 2’s extensive reporting as part of its “Working for Chicago” series continues to uncover how the state’s system for applying for and processing unemployment claims is not only overwhelmed, but incapable of handling the extraordinary number of new claims from the beginning.

In early May, Gov. JB Pritzker acknowledged the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) system was unfit to handle the surge.

“There are thousands of people, there’s no doubt about it, who have had difficulty using the online system,” Pritzker said. “And when they can’t, [they’re] having difficulty getting through to a body.”

Despite this, IDES previously told CBS 2 there is no backlog in issuing benefits. But some of the employees who do the casework told CBS 2 they don’t believe that’s the case.

CBS 2 spoke with four IDES employees on the condition of anonymity for fear they’d lose their jobs. They are experienced employees who directly work with claimants to process applications every day.

Three employees agreed to be interviewed on the record with their names, faces and voices concealed. For that reason, CBS 2 is only identifying them as employees #1, #2 and #3 throughout this story.

“We fear retaliation,” Employee #1 said. “Our agency is obviously a very powerful agency.”

For the first time, these workers offered a glimpse into the challenges IDES employees face daily working to get thousands of new unemployment claims processed, as well as the factors they believe contribute to why so many people have not received their benefits.

An ‘Insurmountable’ Workload

At the time of this report, CBS 2 continues to receive tips from people who say they can’t get through to an IDES representative on the phone. There are others who, even if they successfully submitted their applications, cannot access their benefits.

IDES has 512 employees working to take calls and process claims, the agency said. These employees have worked a total of 32,000 hours of voluntary overtime, with many working weekends, to respond to more than 1 million new claims in the last three months.

The agency said it took steps to streamline the filing process, including moving the website to new hardware infrastructure, expanding web capacity and the call center, and setting up a virtual call center with an additional 242 representatives to handle calls. It also hired or brought back from retirement 41 staff members.

But CBS 2 found Illinois still has hundreds fewer employees than some states with similar population sizes. And the employees we interviewed said they don’t believe the changes have lightened their workload.

“We’re understaffed,” Employee #3 said. “We can’t stay afloat.”

All three employees said even after going through as many cases as they can per day, and working overtime during the week and on weekends, they come to work the next day faced with thousands more claims.

“We walk in and the messages are on the phone already, and the backlog is huge,” Employee #2 said. “That’s why we’re there. We’re there to make even just the handful of people can feel a little better that day.”

The employees acknowledged the number of claims is unprecedented, making it difficult for the agency to improve the system in a timely manner.

“They’re not used to it,” Employee #1 said. “No one has ever handled this before.”

“It seems insurmountable,” Employee #2 said. “You go in, you do so much work every single day, and there’s still thousands and thousands of cases that aren’t done. You walk in and you try to do what you can, and then there’s still 300 more people that need to be called back.”

They emphasized applying for unemployment for the first time also isn’t easy, making the process more complex for new claimants to navigate. There’s a learning curve that, even outside of a pandemic, would require them to work with IDES employees to fix any errors. Employees would also vet the applications before they’re submitted. This is even more difficult with an overwhelmed system and the closure of IDES’ 41 offices for safety reasons.

“So then you throw a million people into the mix, and this is what’s going to happen,” Employee #2 said. “The bottom line is, we don’t have enough people to do it.”

Pritzker acknowledged IDES cut funding in the last decade and now has 500 fewer employees than during the 2008 recession. While the agency is currently upgrading the system, it hadn’t been updated in years. Today, some employees believe are compensating for that loss.

“We all feel if we don’t work the overtime, there’s still so many people that are waiting for us, that we’re just playing catch-up,” Employee #1 said. “It really breaks your heart.”

While the caseload is overwhelming, so is the risk of speaking out about their employer.

But all three said they decided to do so because they’re passionate about helping those who need their benefits, and they want to see positive change.

“I can’t imagine sitting there and have no income and absolutely no idea why, for the most part, they don’t know what’s going on in their claims,” Employee #2 said. “A lot of them have never done this before because this is such a unique situation. So yeah, it’s a good feeling that you can help whoever. Whoever you can get on the phone that day.”

‘Just Push Them Through’

IDES processed more than 1.2 million claims during the course of the pandemic and through the week ending May 16, the agency said. It paid out $3.6 billion in benefits since March 1. IDES did not provide information on how many total claims were approved.

The three employees CBS 2 interviewed made concerning allegations about the way applications were handled at the start of the pandemic. They believe these factors could’ve contributed to the holdup of those still waiting for benefits today.

All three said as the number of claims began to spike in early March, they witnessed overwhelmed employees processing as many claims as they could – even those with obvious errors that would otherwise have been carefully checked by employees.

“All they wanted us to do was literally push them through,” Employee #1 said. “Not try and fix them, not try to get everything – just push them through that way and deal with them later. Push them through. How is that helping anyone?”

Employee #2 said it’s imperative the claims have an opportunity to be reviewed by an employee before they’re issued to catch any errors, and pushing applications through without that process could lead to a delay for claimants.

“I don’t think that was done to be malicious or to not care,” Employee #2 said. “I think it’s trying to get things moving in the right direction. But there’s a reason why certain process are slow, right? It’s because they need human review. And if they’re not getting that, you’re not fixing the problem – you’re pushing it.”

When asked about these allegations, IDES said eligibility for unemployment insurance depends on specific monetary and non-monetary statutory requirements.

“There is no mechanism to push through an ineligible claimant or claim with errors for payment,” they agency said in a statement.

‘Our Hands Are Tied’

The three IDES employees CBS 2 interviewed said the challenges they face walking into work every day go beyond their workload. Like so many people, they’re afraid of contracting the virus at work.

“We don’t have masks on at our desks,” Employee #2 said. “We’re using the same bathrooms, we’re using the same copiers and printers and fax machines.”

While they understand their roles are essential, the three employees said they, specifically, have not been given the opportunity to work remotely.

“There’s no reason why the rest of us in our agency can’t – why IDES as an agency can’t work from home,” Employee #2 said.

This comes after three people who work in IDES offices were tested positive for COVID-19, according to records obtained by CBS 2 and also confirmed by IDES. This includes an agency employee in the Rockford office and a Kane County employee who works in the same building as IDES’ North Aurora Office. A security guard at that office also tested positive.

IDES said all close contacts were notified about the positive tests, and offices are regularly cleaned, which includes scheduled deep cleans. The spokesperson also said each employee and cubicle are at least six feet apart. And while face masks are not required, they said the agency is providing masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.

IDES said there are 554 employees working from home or on call at home. There are 475 reporting to a physical work location, in which the majority are working directly with the unemployment insurance program.

Of the 512 employees whose job duties involve calls and processing claims, 106 are working from home with an additional eight people scheduled to start remote work this week. The spokesperson did not specify why those individuals were chosen to work from home and why others were not, but did say generally, in part: “…There are essential employees who are required to report to their physical work location, because their work cannot be done remotely (e.g. mail room staff, technology limitations, poor internet connects from home, etc.).”

The employees CBS 2 interviewed said it’s unclear why they are unable to do the same.

“We have individuals who have a lot to offer,” Employee #1 said. “Individuals who care about their job. Who want to do their job. But our hands are tied…let us do our job, but we want to make sure when we’re doing our job, you’re doing your job in trying to keep us safe.”

Looking Ahead

CBS 2 has requested multiple interviews with IDES since the pandemic hit. We’ve only received statements from the agency’s spokesperson.

In April, CBS 2 emailed Acting Director Tom Chan with questions about the issues claimants were facing and did not receive a response. In addition, a reporter called Chan directly that same day and he hung up.

Chan has been noticeably absent at Pritzker’s regular COVID-19 press briefings. Earlier this month CBS 2 asked Pritzker if he’d ever consider having Chan attend one of the briefings to respond to questions about problems with the state’s unemployment system. He said he had not.

In a statement about this story, IDES spokeswoman Rebecca Cisco said, in part, that “employees have gone above and beyond to meet the unprecedented demand the department and our systems have had with unemployment questions and claims.”

The statement continued, “IDES employees care deeply about their work and have stepped up to meet this moment under the most challenged of circumstances.”

While the three employees CBS 2 interviewed acknowledged the challenge the agency faces while responding to a pandemic, they believe leadership can take additional steps to improve the processes.

The employees also want claimants to know they’re trying their best to get to as many claims as they can.

“We’re sitting here behind the desks. All day. And we do – we care,” employee 2 said. “…The staff that I’m surrounded by, they show up every day to do the best we can. There’s just not enough of us.”

They believe one critical solution is to add more employees to help lighten the load and get people the benefits they need.

“We just need more staff. We need more staff. That’s it,” Employee #2 continued. “There’s no way that the amount of staff we have at this point can get through these people’s issues in the time they need us to.”

With that comes guilt, all three said – guilt that’s hard to shake at the end of their long work days, knowing so many people still need their benefits but aren’t getting them.

“Just knowing that people are waiting on you or not eating because of you, or because of your agency – and it’s unprecedented, I understand,” Employee #1 said. “However, it still doesn’t take away that feeling in your stomach.”

IDES said it will continue to post and hire for vacant positions. The spokesperson also said 132 positions are currently posted for hiring through June 10.

CBS 2 was able to report this story due to four employees who first contacted us anonymous through our “Leak to Us” page. If you work for IDES or another agency and have a story you think we should report, here’s how you can contact us.

Tara Molina