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Battle For Benefits in Illinois: Viewers Say Preloaded Debit Cards Don’t Work

"She asked me if there were three zero's or three one's on the back of my card. When I said there were, the lady said, 'Oh that's defective. I don't know why they sent out those cards. ... Others have complained about them." 

NBCUniversal, Inc.

When NBC 5 Responds last left Orland Park viewer Nikki Martinez, all fingers were crossed. 

The dental office manager and mom of three was laid off in mid-March and says she has been battling since then to get registered for benefits with the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

After logging close to 1,000 calls and trying to register online more than 100 times, Martinez told NBC 5 Responds she was still struggling to get through to the state's overloaded benefits system. And once she finally got registered, the pre-loaded KeyBank debit card sent to her was a bust.

"I followed all the instructions, like 15 times. It just kept telling me it was not valid," she said.

Which brought Martinez back to a very familiar place: on the phone, on hold.

"More than an hour waiting for KeyBank to answer, I just couldn't believe it," she said. "Do I have the worst luck? I just had to laugh."

When KeyBank answered her call, Martinez said the answer was, essentially, no answer.

"She asked me if there were three zero's or three one's on the back of my card. When I said there were, the lady said, 'Oh that's defective. I don't know why they sent out those cards. ... Others have complained about them." 

At his press event last week, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said his office is also aware of the complaints about the debit cards and has asked KeyBank to look into the situation.

KeyBank, a Cleveland-based financial services company, has serviced part of Illinois' benefits program since 2016 and manages benefits programs for seven other states, according to a spokesperson. The company boasts more than $145 billion in assets and community banks in 15 states, which does not include Illinois. 

Online and on social media, customers in Illinois and elsewhere outline their frustration with KeyBank's preloaded benefits debit cards. Some allege cards that never arrived, others received but not functional, and others bemoan being put on "eternal hold" with the bank.

A spokesperson for KeyBank said Martinez's card was not defective. In a statement, the bank told NBC 5 Responds:

  • 000 cards are extremely rare, but they are functional. Nikki was misinformed by the representative. To remediate, we have since coached the representative. Nikki was not charged a fee for the new card.
  • We have reached out to IDES and they will work directly with the claimant on funding. Payments are approved by the state and are transmitted via funding file transmission to KeyBank.
  • Additionally, a stat that we are sharing: During this unprecedented time, we have worked closely with state departments to issue more than 1.5 million unemployment cards – 20X the normal rate of issuance. A large majority of cards have been delivered and funded without issue.

Martinez said she is one of the lucky ones: She does not need her IDES unemployment benefits to survive thanks to her husband's job and their savings. But she worries about the many similarly affected Illinoisans who can't afford to keep wasting time, on hold and on line. 

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