Lawmakers: Some constituents suicidal in dealing with Illinois’ unemployment agency

(The Center Square) – Illinois state lawmakers say they have constituents who are suicidal because of continued frustrations around getting through to the state’s unemployment agency.

During a virtual hearing Thursday, committee members asked the Illinois Department of Employment Security about unemployment fraud, tax forms for those getting unemployment, overpayment waivers and other issues constituents are concerned about. Other lawmakers pushed for there to be an emergency line for constituents to call who are in crisis.

IDES officials said the reason their offices remain closed is because they worry about their employees getting threats from angry constituents.

“They have been criticized for not reacting quickly enough to this pandemic, it’s really led to some very troubling statements being thrown at the agency and its staff, that of course doesn’t really engender confidence in our ability to reopen safely,” IDES Director Kristin Richards said. “So, I would just ask for your continued partnership as we try to look forward and bring some positivity around this.”

State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe, D-Chicago, said constituents are at their wits end and some are suicidal over their frustrations.

“People around the state are having severe mental health problems because of their inability to communicate with IDES,” she said.

State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, said too many of her constituents have said they’ve been mocked by IDES staff or hung up on after three seconds, and it’s taking its toll, especially when unemployment situations become complex.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Scherer said. “They’re saying they’re going to commit suicide and it’s very hard for me and my staff to sleep at night but they’re getting the runaround…”

Richards responded to the repeated concerns over the mental health of claimants.

“I want to make it very clear to everyone in this committee that this is something that is deeply felt by the employees of this agency,” Richards said. “I think all of us can all agree that in a lot of ways this has been the hardest year in everyone’s lives.”

Others, like state Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, said while IDES offices remain closed, lawmakers’ offices are open.

“I appreciate the fact that your employees get that, but we have to see these people face-to-face,” Crespo said. “I can’t tell you how many boxes of Kleenex my office has gone through because we just don’t know what to tell them anymore.”

IDES said employees are trained to deal with clients over the phone who say they are in crisis and they’re evaluating how they can create virtual office space for people to connect, but didn’t provide a timeline of when that would be available.

More virtual hearings are expected.

Thursday, Illinois experienced another increase in initial unemployment claims. The U.S. Department of Labor reports about 74,000 initial claims and 13,000 independent contractors filed first-time claims for unemployment. Both categories combined, that’s an increase of about 300 additional claims from the week prior. Total insured unemployment and continued pandemic unemployment assistance is 468,567.

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