As Unemployment Claims Soar, Pritzker Outlines Efforts to Meet Demand

New statewide totals: 22,025 cases, 794 deaths

The economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused “an unprecedented number of Illinoisans to lose their jobs,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Monday afternoon.

“This virus has claimed the lives of hundreds of Illinoisans. It has stolen the good health of thousands more, and it has disrupted the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands,” he said. “The challenges that families and workers are facing today is something my administration thinks about each and every day, as we’re simultaneously trying to fend off health consequences of coronavirus.”

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On Monday, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported an additional 1,173 cases of COVID-19 in Illinois and 74 deaths, bringing the totals to 22,025 and 794, respectively. Across the state, 87 of Illinois’ 102 counties have been impacted, according to IDPH.

Between March 1 and April 4, the state received 513,173 initial unemployment claims, which is more than the total received in 2019 (489,831 claims) and five times greater than the claims filed in the first five weeks of the Great Recession that started in December 2007, according to Pritzker’s office.

Illinois House Republicans say Pritzker’s executive orders restricting dine-in service at restaurants, bars and food establishments, and the closing of nonessential businesses across the state resulted in mass layoffs and furloughs. They called on Pritzker to fix the “failed” unemployment system and provide immediate relief to families.

“At a time when Illinoisans in distress need state government the most, we have simply failed,” Illinois Republican House Leader Jim Durkin said in a statement. “These are families who were living paycheck to paycheck and now have no way to put food on the table for the children. We must do better by fixing this issue immediately.”

Pritzker on Monday acknowledged the challenges residents have faced in accessing IDES services, including long wait times for IDES' call center.

“The Illinois unemployment claims process has been a source of hardship for all too many Illinois residents, as it has been for dozens of states across the nation,” Pritzker said. “So many families are hurting at a scale that this country has ever seen in our lifetimes, and our state unemployment filing systems built a decade ago for a much lower number of claims simply haven’t kept pace. This is the painful truth we discovered when unemployment (claims) began to spike.”

To meet the surge in applicants and claimants, Pritzker’s administration worked to increase the capacity on the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s (IDES) website and call center, and rehired recent retirees to increase IDES staffing.

“We’re also hard at work to expand unemployment benefits to more people (who were) previously ineligible and to increase payments to every eligible unemployed Illinoisan,” Pritzker said. “As I announced last month, I signed an executive order to waive the traditional delay of a week for collection of benefits, (allowing) claimants to receive two weeks of benefits instead of one in their first payment.”

IDES is also working on a new system for providing unemployment benefits for individuals who are unemployed because of COVID-19 and are not otherwise covered by the unemployment insurance program, including self-employed sole proprietors and independent contractors, according to the governor’s office. The program will be implemented by the week of May 11, but individuals can begin applying now, Pritzker said.

During his daily press conference Monday, Pritzker also announced measures to ensure essential workers, like police officers, firefighters, health care workers and grocery store clerks, are covered should they become infected with COVID-19.

“We owe them a debt that we can never fully repay, but to start we can give them the peace of mind to know that they will be covered if they fall ill on the job,” Pritzker said. “I asked our Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (IWCC) to pass emergency rules to protect these heroes by ensuring their workers’ compensation insurance covers them if they contract COVID-19 while they're on the job. And just this morning the commission voted to support this extension, effective immediately.”

But the emergency rules don’t cover all essential workers, such as the news media. When asked about that, Pritzker said: “With regard to workmens’ comp, we started with the people who were very much on the front lines. The people who are interacting literally daily with potentially someone with COVID-19.”

The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission could consider expanding the emergency rules to other areas, but “we felt like the people on the very front lines, most exposed, those are the people we wanted to make sure got covered first,” Pritzker said.

During a COVID-19 state of emergency, the IWCC presumes that any COVID-19 exposure to first responders or front line workers “will be rebuttally presumed to have arisen out of and in the course of (the worker’s) employment, and further, will be rebuttally presumed to be causally connected to the hazards or exposures of (their) employment,” according to the emergency rules.

A coalition of business and industry groups slammed the emergency rules, saying they are doing all they can to protect workers while also meeting unprecedented demand and dealing with unprecedented losses and closures. A statement by the Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois, Chemical Industry Council of Illinois, Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association, Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association/Illinois Association of Convenience Stores, Illinois Retail Merchants Association, National Federation of Independent Business and Valley Industrial Association in part reads:

“This commission chose to suddenly impose a drastic policy change that will significantly increase costs and require employers to pay for medical expenses and salary benefits if an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19 without proof the illness was contracted at the workplace. Many of these industries are waiting for relief from the federal and state government in an attempt to make payroll and retain workers, but will now be on the hook for additional costs if they’re lucky enough to re-open when the governor’s stay at home order is lifted. At a time when the state is discussing how to provide relief for employers trying to maintain jobs, this move runs contrary in every way.”

The business and industry groups also took issue with the timing of the emergency rule, saying it was adopted with less than 24 hours’ notice and may violate the Illinois Open Meetings Act. “Further, the governor has been providing daily updates on COVID-19 yet this issue has never been discussed as an emergency,” the statement reads.

Contact Kristen Thometz: @kristenthometz (773) 509-5452  [email protected]

Coronavirus Prevention Tips and Resources

Officials advise taking preventive measures to slow the spread of the virus, including: 

—Washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water
—Using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol
—Sneezing or coughing into a tissue and then disposing of the tissue
—Limiting contact with people regardless of how you feel
—Staying home when you are sick

Symptoms of COVID-19 include, but are not limited to:

—New onset of fever, cough, shortness of breath
—Congestion in the nasal sinuses or lungs
—Sore throat, body aches or unusual fatigue

If you think you have COVID-19:

Call you doctor before showing up at their office. If you have a medical emergency and need to call 911, tell the operator that you think you have COVID-19. If possible, wear a mask before medical help arrives or presenting at a doctor’s office. More advice for those who think they have COVID-19.

Additional resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Illinois’ COVID-19 website
Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) website
—IDPH COVID-19 hotline: 800-889-3931
—IPDH COVID-19 email link
City of Chicago COVID-19 website
—City of Chicago COVID-19 hotline: 312-746-4835
—City of Chicago COVID-19 email link

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