There Are Still No Unemployment Checks In Sight For Illinois Gig Workers

unemployment forms
A newly approved federal law allows for ride-share drivers and other self-employed workers to get unemployment benefits, but the state can’t promise a fast turnaround. Mike Groll / Associated Press
unemployment forms
A newly approved federal law allows for ride-share drivers and other self-employed workers to get unemployment benefits, but the state can’t promise a fast turnaround. Mike Groll / Associated Press

There Are Still No Unemployment Checks In Sight For Illinois Gig Workers

Gig workers and other self-employed, independent contractors in Illinois cannot look forward to getting unemployment checks anytime soon — despite a new federal law intended to help them out financially.

The $2 trillion federal stimulus bill that was approved on March 27 cleared the way to expand jobless benefits to many workers who had not previously been eligible, including the vast ranks of drivers for Uber, Lyft and other ride-share apps.

But nearly two weeks later, the officials who run the unemployment system for Illinois have not come up with a process to accept applications from such workers, much less get the promised money into their pockets.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security says it’s still too busy dealing with the record number of unemployment claims from other workers who are eligible for benefits under existing programs. Preliminary federal data out Thursday show nearly 200,940 people filed claims with the state, up from 178,421 the week before. That preliminary total means more than 493,000 people have applied for unemployment in Illinois in just the past three weeks.

In a statement posted Tuesday on the department’s website, officials told gig workers not to bother applying at this point — and to refrain from calling to ask about the matter.

The new Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act sets aside federal funding for benefits to “independent contractors and self-proprietors” who once could not get benefits “but have become unemployed as a direct result of COVID-19,” officials said.

It’s not clear, though, when the state unemployment agency will be ready to start turning the funding from Congress into reality in Illinois. The U.S. Labor Department issued instructions to states on Sunday.

“Please do not call to inquire about these new federal programs,” according to the statement on the IDES website. “Our employees are processing applications for current benefits. Further details about the new federal programs and how to apply will be made available once they have been finalized.”

In a statement to WBEZ on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for IDES did not say how long the delay will last.

“The stimulus package will take time to implement,” said spokeswoman Rebecca Cisco.

She said state employees are fully occupied trying to field the “large increase in claims for regular unemployment benefits” since a stay-at-home order went into effect on March 20. Last week, for the second straight week, Illinois officials reported fielding a record number of new jobless claims.

It’s yet another blow to many working people who were having trouble making ends meet even before the pandemic, said Lenny Sanchez, a long-time Uber and Lyft driver who lives in Des Plaines.

“It’s a punch in the gut when you hear information like that or a response like that,” said Sanchez, 40, of the statement from IDES officials. “It’s like, ‘Hang on tight. We’ll give it to you whenever it’s ready.’ ”

Sanchez — who’s also an organizer and co-founder with an activist group called Gig Workers Matter — said many ride-share drivers were euphoric when the federal law was approved.

“Some drivers went ahead and started applying as soon as the news came out,” he said. “I’m definitely happy that gig workers were included.”

But he and other advocates for ride-share drivers said tens of thousands of families are suffering deeply because the new system has not been implemented yet in Illinois.

“Ride-share drivers are desperate right now, and they are scrambling to pay bills, pay mortgages,” said Bryant Greening, a lawyer with the LegalRideshare LLC. “It’s really a devastating and trying time for them.”

Morgan Ione Yeager
Morgan Ione Yeager, a freelance photographer, says Illinois’ unemployment claims system, which is backlogged, won’t let her apply for benefits. Courtesy of Morgan Ione Yeager

And it’s not just ride-share drivers who are eager to see the state get their unemployment checks in the mail.

Morgan Ione Yeager, a freelance photographer in Highland Park, said she was “appalled and disgusted” by the delays in implementing the aspects of the CARES Act designed expressly for workers like her.

“They’re really handling it poorly,” she said of the state’s response. “There’s no reason why it needs to be this difficult.”

Yeager said she has lost a lot of jobs with clients in the food, beverage, travel and hospitality industries after the pandemic prompted Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and the governors of most other states to issue stay-at-home orders.

“All of my shoots have been canceled for March and April at least,” she said. “I don’t really know when I’ll be able to start making money again.”

She said Illinois officials here should at least be able to provide some idea of when everybody covered by the federal stimulus bill will get what they were promised.

“There’s no timeline,” Yeager said. “There’s just no answers and no communication. It doesn’t seem like anybody in my situation is being taken care of at all.”

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