coronavirus illinois

‘This is Impossible': The Battle to Register For Illinois Unemployment

Viewers tell NBC 5 Responds their stories of fear, anger and resentment in a system they say makes them feel invisible

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The U.S. Jobs report on Friday shared the cold, hard data of the unprecedented unemployment crisis, but the stories submitted to NBC 5 Responds put a human face on the issue. People who write in are asking for help with a system they say makes them feel invisible.

Search the word, and “unemployment” benefits complaints fill our NBC 5 Responds database — in English and Spanish, echoing misery from across the country.

Here in Illinois, one of those voices is Nikki Martinez’s. The former manager of a dental office in Elmhurst said she has spent seven weeks trying to get through, online or by phone, to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

How many times has she called? "At least 300 times," Nikki told us.

And online? At least 60 attempts. "Four to five hours a day," she estimated.

All the while, she is trying to help her three children, ages 7, 9 and 11, with their school work.

“There was lots of crying, lots of screaming. We are fine now, but it was a lot,” the Orland Park mom said. “Trying to call IDES, it was frustrating for the kids because they felt my pressure of trying to get through and trying to teach them.”

The futility of her many attempts does not surprise Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has studied the troubled infrastructure of state unemployment benefits systems nationwide, most of which are now overwhelmed with record requests.

“I imagine it as little gumball machine with hundreds of gumballs trying to get through the small little hole,” Stettner said. “You know, it’s almost impossible to do.”

In his work, Stettner found a majority of states still using 1980s technology in their unemployment benefits systems. He said Illinois and Indiana have both made moves to modernize, unlike some states.

“But that’s not a silver bullet. You have to have good software, keep it updated and have really good leadership,” he said.

Stettner said all states need to think out of the box, lift unnecessary obstacles and reach out to the tech sector for innovative solutions, a job too big for the old way of doing things.

“ I don’t envy anyone the position of running an agency like IDES or any unemployment agency today, especially given these numbers,” he said.

Back in Orland Park, one last creative attempt for Martinez may have done the trick.

“I said, I’m just going to try one more time. And even though I have been married for 15 years, I tried my maiden name. And it went through!”

NBC 5 Responds will follow along with Martinez as she keeps her fingers crossed she is now certified to receive benefits. One silver lining for her and claimants like her: There is no chance states will run out of the funds to pay unemployment claims. That much is federally mandated.

Of course, claimants must first get through and get certified, in order to get paid.

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