Until just weeks ago, the unemployment rate was at record lows in many parts of Illinois.
But the past week has been the worst ever, state officials said Thursday, as they released new data showing that 114,114 people filed unemployment claims in Illinois in the week that ended Saturday.
That represented an increase of 1,338% over the same week last year and 10 times more claims than the state fielded the previous week, according to data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
The new numbers represent by far the most new jobless claims in Illinois in any week over the past 33 years, according to a WBEZ analysis of federal data. The worst week during that time period was the one that ended Dec. 7, 1991, when the state reported more than 38,000 jobless claims.
The coronavirus outbreak has prompted stay-at-home orders from Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and the leaders of many other states. The situation triggered the greatest sudden spike in joblessness in the country’s history.
The Illinois numbers mirrored a national trend reflected in data made public by the federal government earlier Thursday.
Across the country, jobless claims in the past week totaled 3.28 million, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That number was nearly five times higher than the previous all-time worst week, in October 1982.
The new numbers in Illinois were not at all surprising, given how the huge rush of people who just lost their jobs had overwhelmed the state’s system for processing claims.
Without providing specific data, Pritzker said earlier this week the state had received an “unprecedented” number of jobless claims in the past few days. And the governor acknowledged that phone lines were jammed and the state’s unemployment website was malfunctioning — even as the agency’s offices were closed because of the outbreak.
On Monday, Pritzker said fixes were being made to the website and more call-takers were enlisted to answer the state’s unemployment benefits hotline, which almost always yielded busy signals for several days.
But on Thursday morning, frustrated callers continued to report problems. And at a briefing in the afternoon, Pritzker defended his administration’s efforts to upgrade the website and said there already has been improvement.
“We’re going to get this right,” he said at his daily update on the coronavirus situation in the state.
Erica Laureano, 31, of Portage Park lost her job as a hairstylist on Saturday, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but she still has not been able to file a claim for unemployment benefits.
She said she could not use the state’s website nor the hotline. Even when she called and did not get a busy signal, she says her call was eventually dropped.
“I’ll be put on hold to talk to somebody, and it just hangs up,” Laureano said. “So you don’t speak to nobody, ever.”
At the hair salon where she worked in Evanston, Laureano and the owner were the last two people remaining on the payroll by Saturday.
“My boss tried to keep us open for as long as possible,” Laureano said. “Some of the other staff did not feel comfortable working among other people.”
The flow of customers willing to get their hair done also diminished because of the outbreak, and some clients who did show up in the final days before the salon had to close were noticeably leery of getting infected, Laureano said.
“A client asked if I would wear a mask, and I said, ‘If I had a mask, I would wear one,’” she said.
She heard Pritzker say the website would be upgraded to deal with the greater volume of applications, but she said, “This bigger platform is still not helping the vast majority of us. It’s still not accommodating all the applications.”
The state later released more details about efforts to improve the response, including increases in staff and suggestions that people file their applications at given times and days, based on the first initials of their last names.
Ironically, a small fraction of the newly unemployed could find jobs with the state’s unemployment agency, which recently posted openings for “employment security specialist” jobs.
But the spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Employment Security did not respond to a WBEZ reporter when asked Thursday how many new workers the agency had hired or plans to bring onto its payroll to deal with the surge in unemployment claims.
The number of applications for unemployment benefit is expected to continue to grow, with two major hotels in downtown Chicago set to close indefinitely this week.
A week ago — on the same day the state closed its unemployment offices to the public “until further notice” — officials had issued a news release touting record-low rates of joblessness in January in four metro areas and 52 of the state’s 102 counties.
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @dmihalopoulos.