People angry about losing their jobs and being unable to apply for unemployment have shown up at closed state offices, prompting supervisors to ask for police protection for state workers, internal emails obtained by WBEZ show.
Police have provided protection to state workers when they arrive at work or leave after their shifts at two unemployment agency offices in Chicago, according to the emails sent by supervisors for the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
The ranks of the unemployed in the state have swelled since the coronavirus pandemic prompted Gov. JB Pritzker to issue a stay-at-home order closing all but essential businesses in March.
But the record spike in unemployed workers has swamped the state’s system for processing jobless benefits claims. Many people who’ve lost their jobs have struggled to file applications for benefits because of continuing problems with the state’s unemployment hotline and the IDES website.
In an email to staff on March 24, the supervisor at the IDES unemployment office in Woodlawn, on East 71st Street, wrote that claimants showing up there were “often volatile in nature, banging on the glass doors, cursing at staff, harassing staff in the parking lots, etc.”
She added, “It is unfortunate that signs are posted, stating our public closure status, and yet the claimants do not read the signs, nor adhere to the directions provided. I am at my wit’s end in regards to what additional action can occur.”
A day later, the manager of the office sent a message about “security/protection” to about two dozen employees.
“I am to remind staff to remain vigilant when entering and exiting the building,” wrote the supervisor. “Security have been instructed when claimants become volatile, disruptive or uncooperative on a continuous basis to contact CPD (informing management of actions taken).”
She also wrote that Chicago Police would “make efforts to patrol the area more regularly” and that Illinois State Police had sent an officer to the IDES Woodlawn office to act “as a deterrent.”
That was in addition to having regularly-assigned security guards checking doors, windows and the office’s parking lot.
At another state unemployment agency office, on 18th Street in the Pilsen neighborhood, a supervisor sent a similar message to his employees on March 26. The subject of that email was “safety of staff.”
“Hello Staff,” the manager wrote. “Regarding the resent [sic] safety concerns of leaving an coming into the building, we have spoken to the security guards and we would like for you to be able to call them when you are on your way to the front door so they will know to look for you and have the door open to allow you to come in without having to wait at the front door to be approached by claimants.”
The supervisor then wrote that a Chicago Police officer would “sit outside our office during start and end of business days.”
“We hope this will help to keep us all safer,” the supervisor wrote.
Neither message specifically described any of the situations that led to the increased protection from police and other security measures, and the spokeswoman for IDES declined to comment on specific incidents.
But one worker at a state unemployment office in Chicago told WBEZ this week that “people try to break in a couple times a week” because they are frustrated and desperate to get benefits they need to pay their rent or other bills.
“IDES is bad about giving people information, so they come to the office,” said the employee, who did not want to be identified in this story for fear of being fired. “They know we’re in there because they can see our cars in the parking lot. We have angry applicants out in the parking lot. It’s very scary.”
The problems do not appear to be confined to the two Chicago offices where supervisors sent the emails to staff in March. The governor’s office has told state lawmakers that state and local police were conducting “safety checks” at all IDES offices across the state, the Capitol Fax political blog reported last month.
The IDES employee said many employees of the agency also are afraid that they are not being protected as well as possible from contracting COVID-19 at the offices.
The worker said managers and some employees were allowed to work from home but others must show up for duty at offices that are closed to the public to help process the record number of claims.
In a statement Friday, IDES spokeswoman Rebecca Cisco said measures to ensure employee safety are being taken.
“The department is adhering to and maintaining social distancing in the offices, providing face coverings for employees entering and working in the offices, and the offices are being deep cleaned,” Cisco said.
Chicago police said Friday they “do not have cars assigned” to the unemployment offices in Pilsen and Woodlawn.
But they described four incidents at the Woodlawn offices in the weeks after the stay-at-home order went into effect. In one case, on the morning of April 8, police said, “A female was informed that no one was being let into the building and kicked the door causing damage. The female offender fled. No one is in custody.”
Pritzker said this week the agency is doing a better job of handling the huge volume of work it has been confronted with since the pandemic began. In the last two months, the state says it has processed more than 830,000 claims, but an untold number of people have been unable to access benefits because, they say, they cannot file claims online or by phone.
Outside contractors have been hired recently to help the agency, state officials said, and Pritzker promised to set up a new system for gig workers to access new benefits funded by the federal government.
Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, disputed Pritzker’s claim this week that “the ability to connect online is available to everyone.”
“It’s still a challenge,” Durkin said. “If it was better, I would not be receiving calls, emails from recently furloughed, laid-off Illinois citizens throughout the state saying that we can’t get through, please, we’re desperate and we have nowhere else to go.”
Durkin said he supported the stay-at-home order issued by Pritzker in March, but he alleged the Pritzker administration failed to anticipate how the massive wave of job losses would impact the state’s unemployment benefits system.
“When I hear that the state police is providing security at the Department of Employment Security offices, it puts a greater light on this whole failure,” he said. “It is now a dangerous place to work because of this bitter vitriol, this anger that Illinois citizens have toward Illinois government.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.