Frustration mounts as state scrambles to keep up with jobless benefits claims

State officials are racing to bolster an online portal that “wasn’t robust enough” to handle a wave of claims over the weekend, and many people are still hitting a wall.

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The Disney Store on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile has its windows boarded up Saturday, joining thousands of businesses closing their doors during the COVID-19 outbreak, and leaving thousands of people unemployed.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Another day meant dollars lost for thousands of Illinoisans left jobless as the state economy grinds to a halt in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

And with a flood of residents racing to file claims for unemployment insurance, state employees were still scrambling to accommodate the surge.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has urged the “unprecedented” number of people submitting claims to do so on the Illinois Department of Employment Security website, but many were still hitting a wall Tuesday as the site appeared to crash for several hours and many users complained of glitches throughout the day.

“And it’s broken their phone system, as far as I can tell,” said Dave Unger, a Chicago sound engineer who’s been out of work since the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day due to the statewide crackdown on large gatherings.

“The Monday after that, everything just went away,” said Unger, who works live concerts and events. He was able to create an account on the Employment Security website but hit a point where he needs to physically talk to a state employee to sort out his situation, he said.

All Unger has been able to get so far after days of trying to get through to the Employment Security department: a busy signal.

“You can’t really complain because someone down the street has it way worse; the restaurants, the servers. We’re all in this together,” Unger said.

Liz Graham, out of her job making pizzas, said she’s been stonewalled in her requests by computer and phone for four days straight.

“It’s irritating because this is where our tax dollars have been going, and now that we need it, it’s not there… It’s even more frustrating when you can’t even talk to a person or get some kind of message,” she said.

Claims filed with the agency jumped tenfold last week to more than 64,000 over a three-day period — and that was before Pritzker issued his statewide “stay-at-home” order forcing scores more people out of work to help stem the coronavirus spread.

The agency’s latest claims figures won’t be available until Thursday, officials said.

Pritzker said Monday it became apparent over the weekend their computer system “wasn’t robust enough” to handle all the requests.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen this before, even in periods during the 2008, 2009 crisis,” he said.

The agency is in the process of “[transferring] that system entirely over to a much more expansive foundational software system and server, so we won’t have any of those problems going forward,” Pritzker said.

The state is also reassigning some “non-essential” staffers to the agency’s phone lines, but because they’re fielding an “an unparalleled volume of calls,” the agency wants people who have internet access to use the online portal so people without computers can get through by phone.

“We understand and empathize with the heightened level of frustration this situation has had on those wishing to file a claim,” IDES spokeswoman Rebecca Cisco said. “We ask for patience, understanding, and cooperation as we rise to meet the exceptionally high volume of traffic while working as quickly as possible to serve each customer’s needs.”

Officials recommend submitting claims during off-peak hours: before 10 a.m. and after 3 p.m. The system is not enabled for mobile devices so claims must be submitted on a laptop or desktop computer.

Call center hours have been extended for those without computer access: (800) 244-5631.

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