Op-Ed: Pritzker failing to help out-of-work Illinoisans as other states adapt

It took a tragedy for Katy Stryker to find her passion.

Five years ago, Stryker’s daughter committed suicide. She’s since struggled with PTSD and depression. But she realized exercise was a key part of her recovery. And for the last three years, she’s been giving that gift to others as a personal trainer in the Chicago suburbs.

Stryker has been unable to work with her clients during the COVID-19 pandemic. So on March 31, she filed for unemployment benefits for the first time in her life.

She was denied.

Independent contractors like her won’t be able to apply for benefits passed as part of the federal CARES Act until May 11, according to Gov. J.B. Pritzker. That’s 51 days after the stay-at-home order began. Sole proprietors, freelancers and gig economy workers will have to wait as well.

“It’s so frustrating,” Stryker said. “[Politicians] saying we are part of this economy and we’re important – bologna. People who tried to build a business and pay taxes in this state are not getting anything.”

Pritzker has blamed overwhelming demand, changing federal rules and training restrictions for his administration’s failure to get the program running.

But neighboring Michigan is a different story.

The Wolverine State is processing benefits for those workers today. That’s despite an estimated real-time unemployment rate of 26% – the third highest in the nation. More than 1 million Michiganders have filed unemployment claims in the last four weeks.

Unfortunately, workers like Stryker aren’t the only ones out of luck in Illinois. Traditional employees are also waiting weeks for benefits they need now.

Ashley Lyn was furloughed from her job at Goodwill Industries in March. She figured getting unemployment would be simple, as she received benefits in 2017 and the state already had her information. After “days” on the phone with the Illinois Department of Employment Security and weeks waiting to get a debit card in the mail, her balance remains at $0.

“We have to pay property taxes, water, Internet, phone bills and car insurance. Plus food and gas,” Lyn said.

“They made a horrible mistake not having this system running well. They need to take responsibility for their choices.”

Illinois House Republicans last week criticized the governor for not acting quickly enough to improve Illinois’ unemployment system. Residents are still waiting hours or days on the phone for help.

Other states are taking bold steps to fix this problem.

In one week’s time, New York tapped Google, Deloitte and Verizon to set up a completely online system for filing unemployment claims. An army of 3,000 workers has brought a backlog of applications down from 275,000 in April to fewer than 5,000 today.

Meanwhile, Illinois has around 500 personnel working on unemployment claims. And Pritzker’s administration touted last week that IDES had updated its phone system to increase capacity by 40% – a drop in the bucket when weekly unemployment claims have spiked by more than 1,000%.

Safety nets aren’t supposed to work this way. Illinoisans shoulder among the highest tax burdens of any state, and that should come with robust services. But soaring debt and pension costs have left too little room for the things residents need most from government.

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon said as much last week in a letter asking Congress for a $10 billion pension bailout. “In a normal year the size of those [pension] payments crowds out funding for services and programs,” he wrote.

For small business owners who have paid into Illinois’ unemployment system for years, the situation is beyond frustrating.

Matt Bender runs a small painting company in Naperville, which he started after returning home from deployment overseas. His doors are shuttered in what is typically his busy season. But none his five employees have been able to get their unemployment benefits.

“I would be happy to spend the money and to bear the financial burden if it was being executed properly, but it’s not,” he said.

“They’re hurting. They’re worried.”

Excuses don’t cut it anymore, governor.

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