CHICAGO (CBS) — Because of a COVID-19 outbreak at a local Illinois unemployment office, one Illinois Department of Employment Security employee said workers are dropping like flies.

We asked the IDES months ago what they were doing to protect the workers many are depending on right now in the event of an outbreak, and now, an outbreak has happened.

CBS 2’s Tara Molina talked exclusively to several people at the IDES North Aurora office. Fearful of retaliation, they declined to show their faces and their voices were disguised.

But their message was clear. They said the state isn’t protecting them. And now, thousands of people who need unemployment help are paying the price.

With COVID-19 cases surging in Illinois, unemployment claims are keeping pace. But we found the IDES office in North Aurora, meant to help those people, closed.

It was forced to shut down because of that coronavirus outbreak – with 13 employees, about half their staff, testing COVID-19 positive.

“We’re dropping like flies, essentially,” one worker said.

Workers said IDES didn’t choose to close right away.

“They haven’t been forthcoming with us regarding information,” the worker said.

As more and more people tested positive, the worker said they were told to keep coming to the office.

“They only thing we were told is: ‘You must report to work. You’re not affected,’” another worker said.

Now, they want to know why they can’t work from home – where this won’t happen again.

“We want to work in a safe environment without fear,” the second worker said.

We’ve asked IDES about this before – in May, when, for the first time, we heard concerns from the workers inside IDES.

They questioned why they couldn’t work from home, even foreshadowing exactly this – more than a dozen workers sick.

“We’ve been begging them,” the first worker said. “We’ve been telling them that something needs to be done.”

An IDES spokeswoman told us at the time that the employees’ work cannot be done remotely because of technology limitations, possibly poor internet connection, and privacy concerns.

Six months later, Molina asked IDES why hasn’t the state addressed any of those issues?

Their spokeswoman just listed those same examples again, saying while they’ve improved their staff’s technology, they can’t overcome issues spanning a decade in a matter of months.

The workers’ response is that they can’t do their jobs at all right now.

“It’s like sitting behind a window, or a glass, and watching people burn,” the second worker said, “and knowing you can’t do anything about it.”

That is because it’s not just the 13 IDES workers with COVID-19 affected there, but also the thousands in Illinois who need unemployment help – the claimants assigned to workers who can’t work right now.

“We can’t deal with those cases,” the first worker said. “So therefore, their cases are going to be put on hold until we can get to them.”

The full statement on this issue from IDES spokeswoman Rebecca Cisco is as follows:

“Across our state, essential workers who cannot work from home continue to report to work to do their jobs. While many IDES staff members are able to work from home, as an essential agency and the economic first responder to this pandemic, we also have employees who are continuing to report to local offices to get their work done. All public health guidance is followed at these locations including PPE and social distancing and when we are notified of cases we work closely with the Illinois Department of Public Health to respond. In the North Aurora Office, we have temporarily closed the office for a thorough cleaning and have been in constant communication with staff on new developments and guidance for getting tested or isolating. In these unprecedented times, every decision we make is one that carefully balances the health and safety of our staff with the need to respond to claimants and get sorely needed money in the hands of Illinois’ working families.”

Background:

• As you are aware, IDES made the decision in March to close all local offices to the public. These offices remain staffed and operational because IDES has been deemed and remains an essential agency with essential employees who have work that cannot be done remotely (e.g. mail room staff, those without the technology to work from home, poor internet connections from home, etc.).

• The Department has been up front about the technology deficit created over the course of the last decade. Among issues related to the technology deficit includes lack of adequate hardware to enable key staff to work remotely when necessary. Our department has taken significant steps to overhaul our technology and website infrastructure to improve the process for claimants. We have also made strides to improve technology for our staff, but cannot overcome disinvestment in technology over a decade in a matter of months.

• Employees who are continuing to report to their physical work locations have been instructed to practice appropriate social distancing requirements and the Department is providing the necessary PPE for those staff members working in the offices. Each employee and cubicle are located at least six feet apart from the nearest employee and employees are asked to be conscious of each other’s spaces while walking in the aisles and common areas. Each office, including bathrooms and kitchens, is cleaned and sanitized each day by a third-party vendor and additional sanitizing due to COVID-19 is being conducted. Employees are required to wear masks when entering or exiting any IDES office when moving around the office, and in public settings when a six foot social distance cannot be maintained. Face masks are not required while employees are at their workstations because cubicles and offices are located at least six feet apart.

• Any time there is a positive case reported to IDES, the Department works immediately with IDPH and CMS to receive and implement guidance and communication with the employees who may have been impacted. The Department worked directly with IDHP, CMS, and Kane County to address the positive cases in the North Aurora office. After 5+ cases were reported, the Department made the decision to send all employees in this facility to remote work status or on-call status while a thorough cleaning is done. Staff are expected to return on Thursday, November 12.

• If an employee has COVID-like symptoms or a diagnosis of COVID-19, the employee is initially placed on approved time off with pay, without the loss of benefit time. This time is granted for up to the initial 14 days of quarantine as determined by the physician. After the initial fourteen (14) calendar day period, eligible employees may apply for Emergency Paid Sick Leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which provides for up to two (2) weeks (maximum of 80 hours) of Employer Paid Sick Leave. Employees not eligible for the FFCRA leave remain in paid status for the State.

Meanwhile, we’ve learned the North Aurora office is set to reopen Thursday. We will follow-up and see if that happens.

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.

Tara Molina