CHICAGO (CBS) — There was another uptick in unemployment claims in Illinois this week, and in the number of people waiting for answers about benefits.

A total of 21,499 people filed for unemployment statewide last week, up 7 percent from the week before when there were 20,019 – and close to the numbers we saw in the same timeframe last summer. During the same week last year, there were 22,934 claims – though that was among the lowest number of claims we saw filed in one week last year.

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Still, for perspective, only 7,209 people filed for unemployment during the same week in 2019.

Since the pandemic began, there have been more than 3.8 million total claims filed in the state.

From the beginning, CBS 2’s Tara Molina has been tracking the state’s failure to keep up, and she was on the case again on Thursday. She found the number of people waiting for help from the Illinois Department of Employment Security is up too.

August 2021 – it has been more than a year a half since the coronavirus pandemic hit, followed by a jobs crisis.

But still, every day, we hear from people like Myra Miller.

“It’s just like a big black hole,” Miller told us. “You have no response.”

She was stuck waiting on help from the state for months.

“You would have thought by now they would’ve figured out how to handle it better,” she said.

Miller didn’t get help until after our interview with her aired late last month.

So we dug into the numbers again – taking the growing number of phone numbers in the state’s callback system, and plotting them out.

The graph showed a steady spike. Numbers were at their lowest in mid-June, then on the up-and-up through the end of July.

IDES Call Center Queue Graph

(Credit: CBS 2)

See A Larger Graph Here

The most recent numbers we have, from early August, show 33,745 phone numbers waiting on returned calls from the IDES – a high we haven’t seen since May.

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As for unemployment numbers, we’ve seen changes there, too.

State officials say new claims are connected to job market volatility. We brought that to job placement expert Andy Challenger, senior vice president at the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

“That essential element in creating cars is missing,” Challenger said.

He explained the supply chain disruptions the state has mentioned to us more than once when it comes to new unemployment claims.

“While most of the market has come back after COVID, there’s certain supply chain issues that have continued to be disrupted,” Challenger said. “One major area is microchips coming into the country, from overseas, haven’t been brought back.”

But he said overall, “the job market is very strong. It’s one of the strongest we’ve seen in many years.”

So why are more and more people still waiting for help?

The IDES did not issue a comment for this story. On a related story late last month, the department issued this statement:

“As expected, individuals are contacting IDES for a variety of reasons, including the impending expiration of federal unemployment programs, questions surrounding overpayment waivers, non-instructional education workers eligibility for backdated benefits, and questions surrounding fraud related to ongoing phishing schemes, amongst other typical claims maintenance issues claimants may experience (password resets, certification questions, etc.).

“IDES call center staff are returning phone calls 7 days per week; Deloitte staff are still returning calls on Saturdays (6 days per week). As has been the Department’s standard business practice, data related to call center numbers continues to be monitored and changes in staffing queues will be made as needed. IDES will also continue to evaluate data around the days and times callers are most likely to answer the phone, and focus on staffing in those hours where the effort would be most productive.

“These numbers represent the amount of phone numbers in the queue(s) and are not indicative of the number of claimants.”

On the continued high number of unemployment claims, the IDES said: “The increase in unemployment claims is due, in part, to the anticipated temporary supply chain disruptions in manufacturing that have been reported in the media. This is also an indication of continued volatility as the labor market heals from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As to the drop this week compared with last in unemployment claims, the department said, “Last week’s decline reflects typical seasonal changes and a decrease in layoff activity.”

A spokesperson for IDES told me, again. there are people working the phones 7 days a week to get people the help they need…XXX

Something else Molina has been tracking is the question of when unemployment offices will open back up to the public, after a year and a half.

We have been told “sometime this summer,” with state officials citing security concerns, but there was no update Thursday night.

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.

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Tara Molina