CHICAGO (CBS) — This week marks one year since the bottom fell out of Illinois’ job market because of the pandemic. On March 16, 2020, weekly jobless claims jumped from 10,000 to more than 114,000, after Gov. JB Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order.

Now, the Morning Insiders have obtained hundreds of internal emails circulating at the time in Illinois Department of Employment Security. CBS 2’s Lauren Victory takes us inside the freefall.

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Throw a dart at the 200 pages of emails CBS 2 received, and you’ll hit someone scrambling for an answer at IDES in the first six weeks of the stay at home order.

There were urgent requests from the governor’s office instructing the agency to help constituents.

On April 1, 2020, the field operations manager wrote, “Service Delivery is being inundated with requests from claimants not only through our call centers and website, but also through every possible contact they can find.”

She referred to a “panicked email” about “400 other inquiries.”

By April 3, about 2,300 hundred calls were bombarding the call centers.

IDES tried to slow the flood, sharing unemployment 101 PowerPoints with Congressional members and various Illinois organizations.

All this while trying to figure out the ins and outs of the new Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act.

That federal law allowed IDES to give Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits to gig workers and others not typically covered by unemployment insurance.

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But the emails CBS 2 obtained show Illinois and other states anticipated problems with PUA from the start.

On April 29, acting IDES director Thomas Chan wrote about the PUA rollout: “We can still go-live with the system on May 11 as-is …  But there will be overpayment issues – benefits paid that need to be taken back.”

Sure enough, by the fall, panicked PUA recipients with big IDES bills were reaching out to CBS 2.

Now we’ve learned IDES is looking for money back from at least 40,000 people who received overpayments.

A recently added yellow box flagging a way to waive overpayment requests is the only mention of overpayment on the IDES PUA fact page.

Could this have been prevented, since the problems were anticipated almost a year ago? IDES issued the following statement:

“As IDES has always said, the majority of overpayment issues within PUA stem from the claimant’s ability to establish their own weekly benefit amount (WBA) and receive benefit payment prior to any wage verification.  Early USDOL guidance for the PUA program allowed for this.  Over the intervening months, USDOL continuously revised guidance to states, requiring state unemployment agencies to verify wages after the claim had been submitted, approved, and paid.  When claimants entered incorrect wage information, and after that wage information was verified by the Department, overpayments occurred.  This is why it was, and always has been, important for claimants to accurately report the wages they earned when submitting a claim.  Keep in mind that in the spring of 2020, all states were moving quickly to establish the PUA program and move benefits out of the door. State unemployment agencies have been called upon, and continue to serve, as the economic first responder in this crisis; responding to a crisis required swift action to implement new federal programs.

“As you’re aware, the Continued Assistance Act (CAA) provide state unemployment agencies the ability to waive PUA overpayments on a case-by-case basis.  IDES has already begun the first steps in working with PUA claimants who have an overpayment they wish to have waived.”

Despite a decline in COVID cases and reopening efforts, the latest unemployment numbers show the devastating effects of the pandemic on Illinois’ economy aren’t over.

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We graphed the economic crisis in Illinois, and found one year into the pandemic, unemployment is still at a record high compared to pre-pandemic times.

Lauren Victory