Gig and freelance workers in Illinois are still awaiting unemployment assistance even as the federal program that expanded those benefits expires, and Congress debates whether to extend it.
The program that dished out an extra $600 a week to the jobless expired in Illinois on July 25. But delays at the state agency responsible for dispersing the payments mean there could be an untold number of people eligible for help who still aren’t getting it.
“Those dollars are available from the federal government,” said Bruce Meyer, an economist at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy who’s been studying the federal program. “It’s just a question of Illinois processing those claims and making it clear to workers, former workers, that they can get these benefits.”
While delays are not unique here, Meyer said Illinois stands out as a state that’s lagging in getting payment to people who normally wouldn’t qualify for unemployment benefits but do during the pandemic, such as Uber drivers, under the federal government’s approved Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA.
“The fact that Illinois has been slow in getting out [these] checks … means that a lot of people who are potentially eligible haven’t gotten these benefits that would help them pay things like their rent,” Meyer said.
Though Illinois recently started processing more PUA claims from gig workers — it processed nearly 143,000 claims the week of July 4 up from about 113,000 claims the prior week — the numbers are still well below some other Midwestern states.
Take Michigan, which has nearly 3 million fewer residents than Illinois. That state processed nearly 1 million PUA unemployment claims the week that Illinois processed just under 143,000. That same week Ohio, with a population close to Illinois’, processed around 412,000 claims. Indiana, which has half the population of Illinois, processed nearly 268,000.
Wisconsin, which has less than half the population of Illinois, processed around 54,000 claims the same week.
However, all of those numbers do fluctuate from week to week, the data show.
The delays for Illinois’ processing of claims could be due to a number of reasons. While the Illinois Department of Employment Security did not answer specific questions, a spokesperson did acknowledge the large influx of claims the department has seen during the pandemic.
“The number of claims that we’re looking at right now is … five times higher than it was during the Great Recession,” said IDES spokesperson Rebecca Cisco. “We’re at 1.8 million claims filed thus far.”
The department also issued a statement, stressing that recent fraudulent activity has forced the state to take extra precaution when processing claims.
“We’re processing PUA claims as they’re coming in as quickly as possible, while also being cautious for fraud and fraudulent claims,” Cisco said in a statement. “We know there is a nationwide fraud scheme affecting unemployment systems in every state, so it’s important the Department be as vigilant as possible when monitoring for fraud, while still getting benefits out the door to those who are eligible.”
The continued delays follow a string of issues at IDES after the federal government approved the massive $2 trillion stimulus package that included expansion of unemployment benefits in March.
Those hiccups include a glitch in Illinois’ processing system that leaked private information, busy signals when people called a toll-free hotline to get help and security to protect employees after angry benefit-seeking Illinoisans showed up at state offices.
Gov. JB Pritzker named a new head of the agency earlier this month.
In April, the agency warned there would be a lag in getting benefits to gig workers, because in addition to having to find a way to get benefits to an entirely new category of people, the state was already contending with a historic spike in unemployment claims for traditional workers. Illinois ended up spending at least $22 million to hire additional workers and pay an independent contractor to get a PUA processing system going.
But the state has not answered questions about when people might be able to expect back pay of benefits they’re owed, nor did it give information on how many claims have yet to be processed.
While the federal program that gave $600 in extra benefits has expired, Congress is trying to hash out a new deal to continue supplementing state unemployment benefits, which are capped at $484 per week in Illinois.
Mariah Woelfel is a general assignment reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.