A week after Illinois shattered the old record for most new unemployment claims, state officials said Thursday the updated jobless statistics were even worse.
With the coronavirus outbreak causing the closures of businesses not deemed essential, 178,421 workers filed new applications for unemployment insurance in the week that ended Saturday.
That broke the seven-day-old record of 114,114 jobless claims filed during the week that ended March 21, state officials said.
The unprecedented economic situation here echoes what’s happening nationally. The U.S. Labor Department on Thursday counted a total of about 6.6 million new unemployment claims filed across the country last week.
After having the lowest unemployment rate in decades before the pandemic, the country could be facing its highest jobless rate since World War II.
But the grim new numbers for Illinois do not include the unknown number of people who just lost their jobs but say they have been unable to file claims because of widespread problems with the state’s unemployment hotline and website.
Last week, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker had promised to fix those problems. And Thursday Pritzker again acknowledged the limits of the system, imploring people to follow the state's guidance of filing at certain times and days according to the first letter of their last name.
"This is a problem," Pritzker said. "I don't know exactly that we're gonna fix it entirely so that everybody could do it all at once but we have asked people please to spread out their calls and their applications online and to use the online system because that really is the best way to do it and do it in off-hours."
But many people continue to report obstacles with the bureaucracy.
“For two and a half weeks, I’ve been trying to file for unemployment insurance, but I can’t,” said Philip Jones, who worked in the cafe at the Old Town School of Music, in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, until the governor shut down businesses to stop the coronavirus’ spread. “It’s very frustrating, very frustrating.”
For days, calls to the state’s toll-free hotline invariably yielded nothing but busy signals. Now, though, Jones said he can get through — but still is unable to speak with a call-taker, despite Pritzker saying more state employees were assigned to that task.
“You go through the various prompts that they give you and at the end of the very last prompt, a prerecorded message tells you, ‘Thank you so much, but due to an overwhelming number of phone calls, we are overloaded, and please call back at a later time,’ and it immediately hangs up, without giving any other option, without even going you an email to reach out to,” said Jones, a 51-year-old father of a 5-year-old daughter. “I’m not sure what to do.”
The website of the Illinois Department of Employment Security also continues to have major problems.
A message on the unemployment agency’s homepage on Thursday warned that it could not accept claims until 11 a.m., and would-be applicants for jobless benefits are being told not to bother trying to use the website in the evening either.
“Online filing and claims applications will be unavailable every night from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. for daily claims processing,” the website says. “Thank you for your patience.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.