CHICAGO (CBS) — As part of his budget address on Wednesday, Gov. JB Pritzker called on state lawmakers to approve increased funding for the Illinois Department of Employment Security to help improve performance at the agency, which has been overwhelmed with unemployment claims and massive fraud during the pandemic.
Pritzker asked the Illinois General Assembly to pass a standalone bill providing $60 million in federal funds for IDES for the current fiscal year, and another $73 million in federal funds for the next fiscal year, which starts in July.READ MORE: Tracking And Arresting Unemployment Scammers Who Target Taxpayers, Jobless
The governor’s office says the funding would be used to expand call center operations statewide; improve fraud detection, analysis, and deterrence; administer the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and other pandemic-related federal programs; upgrade technology; modify software for unemployment benefit systems; and increase staffing at IDES.
Pritzker said the additional funding he is seeking for IDES “builds upon work we have already done this year, and will support new call center positions throughout the state, help run the newly created federal unemployment programs, and upgrade the technology to more efficiently get this critical work done.”
According to the governor’s office, the state’s unemployment rate was only 3.4% in February 2020, just before the start of the pandemic, but skyrocketed to 17.2% by April as businesses across the state were forced to close in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Since last March, CBS 2 has tracked more than 3 million unemployment claims in Illinois.
The governor’s office has said the surge of unemployment claims overwhelmed an outdated computer system at IDES, and while upgrades to the system have been made to increase call center capacity, more funding is needed for further improvements.
Illinois State Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago) praised Pritzker for seeking additional funding at IDES.
“Since the beginning of this pandemic, my office has helped over 750 people from in and out of our district with the unemployment benefits process. I am pleased that the Governor is seeking additional federal funding to the Department of Employment Security to address the backlog,” he said in a statement.
However, some business groups have said the governor’s proposal to eliminate $932 million in corporate tax exemptions to help balance the budget. Steve Rauschenberger, a former state lawmaker who is now president of the Schaumburg-based Technology and Manufacturing Association, said the governor’s budget plan would hurt manufacturers struggling to recover from the pandemic, and would cost more people their jobs.
“We urge the governor to stop championing policies that will put Illinoisans on the unemployment lines and force our job creators and innovators to leave our state to survive,” Rauschenberger said in a statement.
Hours before the governor’s budget address, the Illinois AFL-CIO testified at an Illinois Senate Labor Committee hearing that the problems its union members are facing with the state’s unemployment system pre-date the pandemic.
“Many of the problems claimants were experiencing during the spring and summer of last year were the result of years of disinvestment in IDES, as we’ve seen in multiple other state agencies that provide valuable services to those who need them most. IDES was attempting to manage unemployment levels caused by a once-in-a-multi-generation pandemic, using decades-old technology, and with hundreds of unfilled vacancies in their ranks,” said Illinois AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Pat Devaney.
Devaney went on to praise IDES for making some communications improvements during a difficult and overwhelming time of high claim demand, including dealing with hundreds of thousands of cases of fraud.
CBS 2 has been revealing problems with the Illinois Department of Employment Security since the pandemic began, nearly one year ago.
For example, CBS 2 has been trying for months to get IDES to answer your questions about fraud, overpayments and the chronically slow callback system. Finally, last week there were a few answers, but also a lot more sidestepping, as state senators grilled agency leaders.READ MORE: Unemployment Fraud, Identity Theft, And Filing Your Taxes: An Expert's Advice
A big topic of discussion at last week’s Senate Labor Committee meeting was fraud. IDES announced cases shot up by another 138,000 in less than a month, now totaling 1.1 million fraudulent claims. But when asked how many taxpayer dollars went into fraudsters’ pockets, acting IDES Director Kristin Richards would not say.
IDES now has a plan for those with overpayments. Forms were sent out on Feb 15. Those who have paid back overpayments through decreased weekly payments from IDES will also get that money back.
IDES says 60% of overpayments can be attributed to identity theft.
Meantime, a scammer recently spilled his secrets to CBS 2, explaining how he steals your taxpayer dollars from the unemployment system, leaving those desperately needing benefits stuck in limbo.
Many of the scammers live far away from Illinois. They live in the dark recesses of Russia, Europe and West Africa.
“A lot of the scammers are young, They’re quite highly educated,” said Crane Hassold who is the Senior Director of Threat Research at Agari, a business email security firm.
His job at Agari is to cultivate a network of sources, willing to sell their scamming secrets. “We’ve been able to build those sources over the past year or so,” he said.
“It’s a job. This is how they make their living,” he said. So, he pays them $150 in cryptocurrency, untraceable money, to talk. “They want to brag about the crimes that they’re committing,” said Hassold.
What one scammer told him about our unemployment system will make you cringe.
The scammer said, “They don’t verify anything. What they just check is, is the name and the social security number the same? Is the date of birth on the social security number correct? That’s the only thing we have to get right on our part. Once they have gotten those kinds of information it is over.”
And get this, scammers consider IDES an easier target than most. Why?
“Primarily because of some of the restrictions that are not in place in Illinois may be in place in other states,” Hassold explained.
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.MORE NEWS: Man Believes His Illinois Unemployment Benefits Are Being Held Up Because He Is Taking An Online Class
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.