Another 3.2 million file claims nationally as states contemplate reopening
By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — Another 3.2 million Americans filed for unemployment during the week ending May 2, including more than 74,476 Illinoisans. That brought the total number of insured unemployed for the week to 697,443 in Illinois, according to the U.S. Department of Labor estimates, while the total number of jobless claims since mid-March grew to 33.3 million nationwide. The numbers represent roughly 11 percent of Illinois’ civilian labor force and 15 percent of the nation’s workforce.
Last week’s 74,000 filings were fewer than the 81,000 filings the week prior, and down considerably from the peak of more than 200,000 during the week ending April 4. The Illinois Department of Employment Security announced Thursday, May 7, that it has processed more than 1 million claims since March 1. “The devastation this pandemic has wreaked upon our economy, the economy of the United States, and that of the world, is mind boggling,” Gov. JB Pritzker said in his daily COVID-19 briefing. “The swiftness and immediacy of its economic impact has never been seen before.”
The numbers continue to grow while states around the country contemplate the best plan for reopening their economies as the novel coronavirus pandemic appears to be in the middle of a plateau. Pritzker’s “Restore Illinois” plan, which he says is backed by science and epidemiologists, has faced criticism from Republican lawmakers for moving too slowly to get the state working again. “Until we have a vaccine or an effective treatment or enough widespread immunity that new cases fail to materialize, the option of returning to normalcy doesn’t exist,” Pritzker said in unveiling the plan Tuesday, May 5. “That means we have to learn how to live with COVID-19 until it can be vanquished.”
Pritzker’s plan separates the state into four regions by grouping the state’s various medical districts and sets timelines and benchmarks that must be met for a region to move into the next of five phases. All of Illinois is currently in the second, or “flattening,” phase. The earliest a region can enter stage three is May 29, and it would have to have a test positivity rate of below 20 percent for 14 days, as well as 28 days without an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Hospitals in the region would also need a 14-percent surge capacity. To reach the final phase in which large events are allowed and all sectors of the economy are open, there will need to be a widely available vaccine, treatment, or no new cases of the virus.
House Republicans on Wednesday, May 6, called for a legislative session to debate the merits of a more localized reopening strategy, claiming Pritzker’s plan will kill Illinois small businesses, particularly in the hospitality industry. “Our state cannot survive this way, businesses, the employers cannot survive this,” House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said in a videoconference.
Democratic leaders have not yet indicated they have plans to call a legislative session to address reopening. House Speaker Michael Madigan said in a statement Wednesday that the health of lawmakers, staff, and the public will be paramount when deciding when to return for session. “While I am eager to see a return to normalcy, we are talking about people’s lives, and any plan for a return to Springfield must have the health and safety of all those involved as a top priority, including the communities the members represent,” Madigan said in the statement.
Pritzker has faced continued criticism from Republican lawmakers for long wait times and other reported problems with the state’s unemployment filing system. While the governor said its capacity has been upped to handle an unprecedented number of claims, Republicans in the videoconference Wednesday detailed a steady flow of calls to their offices regarding issues with unemployment. Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville, said one constituent told her she called IDES 157 times before finally getting through. “This is really a broken, broken system,” Bourne said.
Pritzker said Thursday his office has worked to deal with years of state government disinvestment in the department, which has 500 fewer employees than it did when the Great Recession hit in 2008-2009. “This historic number of claims has also led to historic levels of benefits being paid out,” Pritzker said. “In the first four months of 2020, Illinois has paid out over $2 billion in claims. That’s $500 million more than what was paid out in all 12 months of 2019.” Pritzker said the system was unprepared for the initial crush of claims, but staff has worked “thousands of overtime hours,” and the agency has brought on new employees and brought back retired employees, increased call center hours, updated and increased phone systems, overhauled the web platform, implemented an alphabetized calling schedule and brought on outside partners.
He said another 100 call center agents will be on the job by Monday, with another 100 coming down the line. “As a result of these improvements IDES is now paying unemployment benefits in a timely manner to 99.9 percent of clean claims,” he said. “And the majority of these claimants, approximately 75 percent, receive their first payments within two weeks of filing.”
Also this week, IDES released new instructions for independent contractors and the self-employed who may be eligible for newly-created federal pandemic unemployment assistance. Workers who believe they are eligible for the new insurance must first apply for regular unemployment assistance. Receiving a denial for regular unemployment benefits is a mandatory first step in determining eligibility for the new benefits. IDES encouraged workers to submit the regular claims before a new pandemic unemployment insurance portal goes live on May 11. If claimants receive an eligibility determination of $0, they can appeal that decision by providing verification of wages earned, or they can submit a claim for pandemic unemployment assistance via the new portal when it opens.
Pritzker said IDES is prepared to process these claims starting Monday, May 11, at a rate of 140,000 claims per hour.