Little live help is available, no promised callbacks despite months of waiting, and still IDES field offices statewide remain closed. These are just a few items on the long list of complaints NBC5 Responds viewers report about the state’s Department of Employment Security, the only lifeline to life-saving benefits for many Illinois residents impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“No, I don’t think that is acceptable,” State Representative Anne Stava-Murray tells NBC 5’s Lisa Parker. “People are frustrated, angry, at the end of their rope—and I don’t blame them.”
Stava-Murray started speaking out this past summer, after constituents bombarded their representatives’ offices with complaints about IDES and the inability to talk to anyone at the agency.
“Sometimes it feels like reaching out to IDES is a little like throwing a bottle into the ocean. You write this note and you hope someone reads it,” Stava-Murray says.
Among those hoping: rideshare driver John Stemmelin.
“I’ve been waiting two months. A dropped call made me lose my place in line,” John tells NBC 5 Responds. “The dropped call is not their fault. But the fact they are not trying to call us back is their fault.”
That is an anecdote NBC 5 has heard over and over: claimants say they waited for weeks for a callback, then got precious few seconds on the line once that call came in. A dropped call, followed by…nothing.
Even a dropped call is more than Barb Schultz says she got, 11 weeks into her wait for a callback from IDES.
“You sit on the phone for hours,” the Tinley Park mom of six says. ”There’s a list of all these phone numbers…I called all of them. No callbacks.”
Schultz’s case should have been a simple one, she says. IDES’ website says she was paid for two weeks of unemployment, but she says she never received those benefits, and now faces paying taxes on them.
For answers about these questions and other complaints facing the agency, we made multiple requests to speak to IDES Acting Director Kristin Richards. Our requests were not only denied: they were flat-out ignored. Four separate requests to IDES media spokesperson Rebecca Cisco were never answered.
IDES’ Freedom of Information officer did answer two of our questions. We asked how many callback requests the agency received in July and August. IDES says it received just over 532,000 requests, and completed more than 421,000. No word on how many of those calls were dropped.
As for how many employees the agency has added since the pandemic began? Despite public pledges by Governor JB Pritzker to beef up the agency’s helplines, IDES says it has added just 24 staff employees since March. The agency says that does not account for contractors, but did not specify how many of those are on the job.
Stava-Murray tells NBC 5 Responds she has seen incremental improvement in how IDES is handling unemployment claimants’ requests in recent weeks, but says that could also be accounted for by the fact layoffs have slowed down.
In the meantime for Schultz, it is Day 84 and counting, as she awaits the one promised callback she asked for back on July 6.
“All I keep thinking is, what if I was dependent on that money, how would I be feeding my family?” she says. “That’s why I decided, I’m calling (NBC 5) and I’m saying something.”
Stemmelin agrees, saying he sought help when it became clear that reaching out to IDES was a fruitless exercise.
“Every single one of us that’s an IDES claimant is also a voter. They need to know from a real person, the system is broke. Broke!,” he says.