In Illinois, The Newly Unemployed Face An Extra Hurdle: ‘It Was Just A Busy Tone — Beep, Beep, Beep’

Illinois’ unemployment offices are closed, but the phone and online systems can’t handle the crush of applicants.

A Person Calls A Telephone Hotline
Illinois residents applying for unemployment are complaining of long waits on the phone and on the state's website to file claims. Jenny Kane / Associated Press
A Person Calls A Telephone Hotline
Illinois residents applying for unemployment are complaining of long waits on the phone and on the state's website to file claims. Jenny Kane / Associated Press

In Illinois, The Newly Unemployed Face An Extra Hurdle: ‘It Was Just A Busy Tone — Beep, Beep, Beep’

Illinois’ unemployment offices are closed, but the phone and online systems can’t handle the crush of applicants.

For newly unemployed workers, the frustrating process of applying for benefits from the state of Illinois has aggravated their difficult situations.

Many people who lost their jobs recently because of the coronavirus outbreak told WBEZ they have tried to file unemployment claims — only to encounter jammed phone lines and a malfunctioning state website. The pandemic and the state’s stay at home order prompted officials to close unemployment offices. And other methods for filing benefit applications proved unable to handle the crush of freshly jobless people.

Gov. JB Pritzker acknowledged the problem Monday, and he promised to fix it. But the issues persisted for much of Tuesday.

Philip Winston, a 44-year-old from Rogers Park, said he thought Pritzker was “doing a great job” dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, but he was concerned about filing an unemployment claim with the state.

Winston had led guided tours of Chinatown until a week ago. The tours included stops at restaurants in the neighborhood. Then, because of the pandemic, the state limited restaurants to filling carry-out orders. “All the restaurants were closed,” Winston said. “The company had to shut down essentially.”

The state has a toll-free number, 800-244-5631, for the unemployed to file their applications.

“When I called the help hotline, there’s a busy signal constantly — all the time, all day,” Winston said.

The state’s unemployment website did not work for Winston either. Chicago Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa wanted to include the unemployment hotline number in the information he was sharing with constituents in the 35th Ward. When the alderman and his aides tried to verify the number, though, they had the same problem as Winston.

“It was just a busy tone, you know — beep, beep, beep,” Ramirez-Rosa said. He said the vast increase in the number of unemployed people showed that the state needs help from the federal government.

Jim O’Boyle, 30, of Lakeview lost his job as a cashier at a restaurant in his neighborhood on the North Side last week.

“I haven’t been able to get the online thing to work at all,” O’Boyle said. “I tried doing it a bunch of different ways. I think it’s not really accepting any new registrations.”

O’Boyle said he finally got through to someone at the Illinois Department of Employment Security — but only after being put on hold for an hour.

“I explained that I tried to do it online and my operator person told me that they were all having trouble with the registration thing,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the state said Tuesday the number of jobless claims filed in the past week will not be publicly reported until Thursday. But she said officials have received an “unprecedented number of unemployment benefits claims and questions.”

Pritzker said the situation caused by the coronavirus outbreak is worse than the last recession to hit the U.S. economy.

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

He said officials were improving the system to take online applications.

“The system that we had that was supporting the online applications was not robust enough to take all of the applications that were coming in at one time,” he said. “We are porting that system entirely over to a much more expansive, foundational software system and server.”

And the governor said more call-takers had been enlisted.

"We had to take nonessential staff and push them up to the front line to answer phones, to make sure we answered any questions,” Pritzker said. “We want to fulfill people’s needs during this crisis, and we’re going to.”

A call to the hotline Tuesday night did indeed get picked up.

Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.