(The Center Square) – As the state of Illinois approaches a month under stay-at-home orders from Gov. J.B. Pritzker amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the issues of unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation have come to the forefront.
Continued problems at the Illinois Department of Employment Security in processing a record number of unemployment claims prompted Republicans to push for more out-of-the-box strategies.
House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said he was not interested in “rearview mirror politics,” but Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration should have been better prepared. Among other things, Durkin called for state employees from other agencies to be shifted to IDES even if such a move violated collective bargaining agreements.
“I just want to reemphasize that [if] the state of Illinois was able, through the stroke of a pen, [to] shut down private businesses, which we did, the administration should be able to work through quickly under the emergency powers which the governor has exercised with labor agreements to reposition state employees from other agencies to the Department of Employment Security for a temporary period of time,” Durkin said.
Pritzker on Monday said his administration had overhauled the state’s unemployment website, brought back recently retired IDES employees to work from home, expanded call center capacity and brought in Google AI and other private companies to help get the technology to process claims.
In the first three weeks of the governor’s stay-at-home order, nearly half a million Illinoisans filed for unemployment benefits.
For independent contractors and self-employed sole proprietors, Pritzker said IDES was working with a private contractor Deloitte to implement solutions to get them unemployment benefits. He said he expected that to be implemented by May 11.
Pritzker on Monday also announced emergency rules issued by the Workers’ Compensation Commission at his request. Pritzker said the rules were in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and would put the onus on employers of first responders and other “essential employees” if the employee contracts COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus that emerged in late 2019.
“[I]t will be rebuttably presumed that the individual’s exposure arises out of and in the course of and rebuttably presumed to be causally connected to their employment,” the rule states.
The rules were filed Monday and were effective immediately. They cover first responders, front line health care providers and correction officers. The rules will also apply to essential employees in grocery and hardware stores, gas stations and others, but not media.
A group of employer associations said the move was “drastic” and would “significantly increase costs” for employers and runs contrary to helping employers during the pandemic.
“At a time when the state is discussing how to provide relief for employers trying to maintain jobs, this move runs contrary in every way,” said the group, which includes the National Federation of Independent Business, Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, Illinois Retail Merchants Association, Illinois Association of Convenience stores and others.
Pritzker defended the move.
“What I can tell you is in the middle of an emergency the only way you have to operate is to protect people as best you can, their health and safety, and to the extent that it’s required that someone has to pick up the tab for that, that sometimes that will fall on the people most able to pick up the tab,” Pritzker said.
The employers’ group said that outside of the legislative process, the emergency rule was adopted without 24 hours notice, which may violate state law.