The ABC7 I-Team investigates the Illinois unemployment benefits crisis in "Broke: Unemployed and Unprotected," streaming now on all of ABC7 Chicago's digital platforms including Roku and Amazon Fire TV.
- It's very, very stressful. And if you're not a strong person, you will crack.
- I run out of every options, and I know I'm not the only person who's dealing with this.
- The unemployment safety net collapsed.
DONNA RUCKER: What am I going to do? How am I going to make my ends meet?
- Overwhelmed during the pandemic--
- People want answers.
- I feel like I did everything I could, but still no result.
- Calls for help unanswered--
- I thought they were really going to have my back.
- While criminals cashed in.
- It makes me sick. It makes my colleagues sick.
- The system is paralyzed, and it needs to be fixed.
- Now, the ABC 7 I-team investigates what went wrong with Illinois' unemployment system, finding solutions to prevent another catastrophe.
- Learn a lesson from the current failure.
- This is an opportunity. We are bound to face another crisis like this in the future.
JASON KNOWLES: Hundreds of thousands of people across Illinois lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: And the system designed to be a lifeline for them broke. Now, we're investigating how this critical safety net failed, leaving the unemployed in our state unprotected.
JASON KNOWLES: The ABC 7 I-team has been telling their stories of desperation and frustration since the crisis began.
- I don't even know what to do at this point. It's been really frustrating.
- I may have a little anxiety.
- I need to talk to a real person so we can iron out the issues.
- They say they're too busy, they can't take my call this time, please try again later.
- There's many, many people struggling, and there's no answer right now.
- There's agents that just hang up on you?
- They hang up on you.
- And this has happened to all of you?
- It's happened to me.
- [INAUDIBLE] my last ditch effort to help me get some answers.
- My heart just, like, stopped. I was almost in tears. I want them to fix this. I want them to return phone calls. I want-- I want to at least talk to somebody other than a robot. I want to somebody-- I want somebody to give me my money back.
JASON KNOWLES: When the pandemic shut down the economy, people across Illinois urgently needed money just to make ends meet. But instead of help from the Illinois Department of Employment Security, many people got delays, like long wait times to speak to an agent and agonizing waits to get benefits.
DONNA RUCKER: It's been extremely difficult. It's been extremely difficult. Jason, I've actually filed bankruptcy.
JASON KNOWLES: Donna Rucker is stretching every dollar these days, even selling her truck to pay bills.
DONNA RUCKER: I have not had a paycheck since August. If it was not for my daughter and my son, I just-- I really don't know.
JASON KNOWLES: Rucker was laid off when the long-term health care facility she worked at closed. Despite multiple calls and filing attempts, she hasn't seen a dime from IDES in eight months.
What do you want to say to the governor?
DONNA RUCKER: Pay attention. Pay attention to the little people. The work that I do is looked down on by many, but it's important. If you have family or a loved one that's in assisted living or a group home, it's important.
JASON KNOWLES: Rucker is one of hundreds of people who have reached out to the I-team since the pandemic began. And with so many people in the same situation, governor JB Pritzker has been questioned and criticized for the mess.
JB PRITZKER: It was an underinvestment, frankly, over the years. You know, people don't think about unemployment-- when unemployment is high, when unemployment is low, people don't think about the general assembly, leaders of the state in the past have not thought about investing in the unemployment systems of the state, because it hasn't been necessary.
But it's in a pandemic, it's in an emergency when you really need it that you find out that the systems weren't invested in and needed upgrading. And so we've done that as fast as we possibly could.
- The stories have been-- one is just more tragic than the other.
JASON KNOWLES: Non-stop calls into this office. House Republican leader Jim Durkin believes that IDES delays could have been solved quickly, within the first two months of the shutdown, if the governor would have called legislators into a Zoom session and found a way to get more funding and resources to IDES.
JIM DURKIN: The uptick of the requests were coming into IDES, and then people were not getting the responses at all.
JASON KNOWLES: Do you blame Governor Pritzker solely?
JIM DURKIN: Yeah. This is something that the administration should have thought about prior to saying that we're going to shut down our economy, our small retailers until further notice. What are they supposed to do? They go to the Department of Employment Security to get benefits. They were not prepared, and they still have not been able to successfully complete their mission.
JASON KNOWLES: Does it surprise you at all that over 10 years, none of these elected officials said, oh, this agency looks like it's a little slim?
JIM DURKIN: I don't think that that is-- I can't say that that is a response that we would get or think that way, because I would say that the agency has managed within, I think, a reasonable degree of success over the years.
JASON KNOWLES: Thanks for meeting with us. The criticism of IDES is bipartisan. State representative Thaddeus Jones is a Democrat who represents the 29th district, where Donna Rucker lives.
THADDEUS JONES: Unemployment, the system was flawed. So if you had to assign blame, I mean, the past administration-- if I had to put a percentage on it, the past administration, I would assign 50%, current administration, 20%, and the legislators the other. You know, we have to take blame for this too, because we never anticipated getting to this point.
The governor has tried to stop it-- stop plugging the hole, but it's still leaking. It's leaking. Actually, it's flooding right now. And people want answers, and they're looking for us to give them answers.
JASON KNOWLES: So it's been about a year. Has it gotten better?
THADDEUS JONES: No.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: Not better?
THADDEUS JONES: No. The new director has a commitment to making it better. But if you hear the calls that are coming into our office and you hear the time that it's taking to resolve it, residents who don't have a choice between food, rent, or trying to pay for their medicine, it's worse for them.
- Rather than wait on hold or call multiple times, you will receive a call when you're next in line without losing your place.
JASON KNOWLES: People are saying, OK, I get a call back, and then I get disconnected, or, even worse, I get hung up on. Hung up on?
KRISTIN RICHARDS: Jason, listen-- what we're doing now is that if a call has been disconnected for whatever reason, we are giving those individuals a call back within one or two business days. I also just have to say that being hung up on is unacceptable. It's just unacceptable. We do not-- that's not a representation of the Department.
JASON KNOWLES: IDES is nearly 100% federally funded. That money is allocated based off of the annual unemployment rate, which was low until the pandemic hit. An I-team data investigation found that after the 2008 recession, IDES employed more than 1,700 people. But as the economy recovered over the last decade, the number dropped to about 1,000 employees. That's 40% fewer employees right before the pandemic hit.
KRISTIN RICHARDS: It frustrates me that-- and it saddens me, quite frankly, that we have claimants that are so desperate for a callback, they may be using multiple phone lines in order to reach us.
JASON KNOWLES: Since the pandemic, IDES staffed up to nearly 1,200 employees, and hundreds of call center agents have been added. Many are contracted workers, bringing the call center agent total to around 600. How can 600 call center agents be enough?
KRISTIN RICHARDS: There are days where we will receive 20,000 phone calls. Those are aberrant trend days for us when you look at sort of long-term since the inception of the callback system in July. But we are interested in trying to continue to engage additional contractors in this process. So that headcount will likely grow into the spring and summer months.
JASON KNOWLES: State officials say they also scurried to make fixes and upgrades to the IDES website, which was developed 16 years ago. When you go to bed at night every night, what are you thinking?
DONNA RUCKER: What am I going to do? How am I going to make my ends meet? And the first thing that I think of when I wake up in the morning is the very same thing.
JASON KNOWLES: As people waited for help, a new problem emerged.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: Criminals seized on a crush of filings to fraudulently apply for benefits. Many people who never file for unemployment are still untangling the knot of identity theft. And for people who really need help, fraud is making an already tough situation much worse.
- I have five people depending on me.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: Tiffany, who didn't want her last name used, says unemployment benefits helped her make ends meet after losing her job last April. But in December, she says the payments suddenly stopped.
- I have no income-- no income. So my mind is racing and I'm devastated. I couldn't think beyond the fact that I don't have anything.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: After calling the Illinois Department of Employment Security, she says she learned that she was the victim of unemployment fraud. And IDES locked her account.
- I got everything together that they asked for, which is a front and back copy of your ID, your social. I gave even bank statements. I went over and beyond.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: The single mom says she went without unemployment benefits for 12 weeks, leaving her with no choice but to clear out her savings to pay the rent and put food on the table.
- I was going crazy. I was going crazy but trying to keep that a secret, trying to stay together for my family, because I am the soul and heart of this family. They look to me. There is nobody else to look to.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: Do you think it should take them this long to figure out are who you say you are?
- No. There's no reason it should. I had to call-- and this is no Lie-- at least 50 times-- at least 50 times. I thought they were really going to have my back.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: And she's far from alone. State officials have identified about 1.5 million fraudulent unemployment claims since the start of the pandemic. The ABC 7 I-team has heard from dozens of people whose unemployment benefits were stolen. Others tell the I-team they've never applied for unemployment benefits before. But somehow, someone was able to file on their behalf.
THOMAS TURRISE: I think the state needs to just tighten the regulations on how easy it is for the criminals to do this.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: Criminals collected state funds in Thomas Turrise's name.
THOMAS TURRISE: It's just like the system is paralyzed to do anything, and it needs to be fixed.
- Do you think IDES could have prevented this from happening?
SERGIO SERRITELLA: This was absolutely foreseeable, and it's tragic because it could have been prevented.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: Cybersecurity expert Sergio Serritella, president and founder of the professional investigations firm, Vantius, says IDES failed to adequately verify claimants' accounts. When the team asked IDES about the fraud back in August, the department emphasized the importance of using complex passwords.
SERGIO SERRITELLA: Passwords are dying. They're yesterday's technology, and that's because they're the weakest link in any organization's security system. Hackers trick people into revealing their passwords. They outright steal them. So we are now in an environment where we have to move past that. We need to be in a multifactor environment.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: Serritella says multifactor authentication has been embraced by the private sector, but he says many government agencies like IDES are lagging behind. Chances are, you've probably used multifactor authentication. Usually, it's done through an app that sends a unique code to another device for the user to verify their identity.
SERGIO SERRITELLA: They're using your IP address to evaluate where you're logging in from. Is it a new location? And they're taking a global picture of each individual attempt to access to decide whether to limit, whether to block, or whether to demand additional authentication.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: He says this technology is easy to implement and inexpensive.
SERGIO SERRITELLA: Less than $0.50 per authentication. So that small of an investment could have prevented thousands of in fraud per occurrence.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: The unemployment fraud is so rampant and costly, the FBI and Illinois Attorney General are among the agencies investigating.
We've spoken to dozens of people, and they're frustrated because they feel that this has gone on for a year now, and the state should have a handle on this by now. What is your response to those people who are really frustrated at lawmakers and state officials?
KWAME RAOUL: Well, that we are working on it. This is something that's not unique to the state of Illinois. It's happening all across the country. And it's a complex thing to try to solve. But we're on it.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: Attorney General Raoul says the unemployment task force is sharing information as part of the effort to catch the people behind the fraud.
KWAME RAOUL: Some of the bad actors may reside outside of the country, some within. But we're doing everything we can collaboratively, and we think it will produce some results.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: How do you ensure that something like this never happens again?
KWAME RAOUL: You know, I'm never one to give any such assurances. What I can tell you is that we will learn from the experience. This was an unpredictable situation, and I think we're doing our best collectively to try to work at solving the problem.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: After waiting 12 weeks, Tiffany says her IDES account and benefits were finally reinstated.
- This clearly showed me who I need to depend on. I need to depend on Tiffany, because I have five people depending on Tiffany.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: One of the most common complaints to the ABC 7 I-team has been wait times to speak with someone at IDES. A callback system put in place only compounded the frustration of so many people who need to speak with a human to work through their claims.
Shawntel Harris says she thought she had finally achieved the American dream when she purchased this home in Forrest Park last winter.
SHAWNTEL HARRIS: I cried. I actually cried, because it was something that I always talked to my grandmother about. She passed at the beginning of March of last year. And it was something I always told her I wanted to do.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: But in January, Harris says her life took a devastating turn. Still grieving the death of her grandmother, she learned that her mother passed away unexpectedly. The two were best friends. A month later, Harris lost her job.
How are you coping?
SHAWNTEL HARRIS: I'm grieving from one thing to the next, and then losing my job. That plays on a person's mental health. It's very, very stressful. And if you're not a strong person, you will crack.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: As a new homeowner, Harris says she worried that she'd get behind in her mortgage payments. She says she was approved for unemployment benefits, but says she was unable to log into her account. What happens when you call IDES?
SHAWNTEL HARRIS: I have yet to receive a call for someone to say anything. There is no given timeframe. You don't know when someone is going to call you. It's like it's a waiting game.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: Harris says she called IDES about 50 times. And each time, this is what she hears.
- What this means to you is that rather than wait on hold or call multiple times, you will receive a call when you're next in line without losing your place.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: In July of last year, IDES implemented a callback-only system, which was supposed to be a temporary solution to return calls in the order that they're received. But the I-team has heard from hundreds of people who are infuriated by the system. How many times have you called IDES?
ZSUZANNA MCKOY: Close to 100. Close to 100.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: 100 times?
ZSUZANNA MCKOY: Yes. And I didn't hear back.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: Zsuzanna McKoy says she was approved for unemployment benefits last year. But from September to January, she didn't receive any help. But state records show payments of more than $10,000-- money McKoy says she was never paid.
ZSUZANNA MCKOY: I have three kids to take care of. I run out of every options, and I know I'm not the only person who's dealing with this.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: Ron Anderson says he's been waiting on his unemployment benefits for three months and can't get anyone on the phone.
RON ANDERSON: When you put in the call to the callback system, there's no indication how long it's going to take. Going back and forth through the phone queue is just not working. And they haven't improved that process.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: IDES says they're hoping claimants in the order the calls are received. And it's important to make sure you answer the phone when you get a callback.
ZSUZANNA MCKOY: I feel that I did everything I could, but still no result.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: As for Harris, she's now considering applying for forbearance to pause her mortgage payments so she doesn't end up losing her dream home. What is your message to IDES, to lawmakers, to anyone who can possibly make some kind of change?
SHAWNTEL HARRIS: Let me know that you are listening, you are aware of what's going on. This has gone on long enough.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: This crisis is the worst on record. At its peak, nearly 1 million people in Illinois were out of work. In the last economic downturn after the 2008 to 2009 financial crisis, unemployment in Illinois rose and reached 11.4% in 2010. For a decade, it trended downward, falling to just 3.5% in January 2020.
JASON KNOWLES: COVID-19 changed everything, bringing the economy to a halt. Unemployment skyrocketed by April of 2020 and hit a record 16.5%. At the start of 2021, Illinois unemployment was at 7.7%-- still 473,000 people without jobs.
And while the economy is slowly beginning to recover, what are leaders doing to prepare for the next unemployment crisis? The I-team uncovered several solutions that experts agree could better prepare the unemployment system to handle the unexpected.
If this all happened again tomorrow, is IDES ready?
KRISTIN RICHARDS: We're certainly better off than we were a year ago. This has certainly exposed the real need to make sure that we are investing, and training, and hiring, and really taking advantage of those interim periods between recessions or economic downturns to really invest, and build, and modernize.
JASON KNOWLES: The first solution-- a larger, more career-oriented staff at state call centers. Would you say that you need 1,000, 2,000?
KRISTIN RICHARDS: I would say right now, we're looking at a really all-hands-on-deck effort. We do, though, want to make sure that we are looking at this in a way that is strategic and relies on the data.
JASON KNOWLES: To alleviate some of the burden on call centers, modernize the outdated ideas website so people can track their claims.
KRISTIN RICHARDS: We're operating on a benefit management system that is over a decade old. It is not nimble enough in order to provide real time information to claimants, for example. You know, I think that if we had resources in place that allowed a claimant to access the status of their claim, that would really solve a lot of questions that come to our call center.
JASON KNOWLES: Experts also say security improvements like two-factor authentication are needed to be part of an IDES tech upgrade. But finding money to pay for these fixes is a challenge across the country.
ALEXA TAPIA: This funding mechanism does not work. State agencies are not resourced. They don't have the capacity they need or the resources they need to be able to meet an unemployment crisis quickly and accurately.
JASON KNOWLES: Alexa Tapia from the National Employment Law Project says linking unemployment funding to the unemployment rate leaves states unprepared for sudden financial crisis and scrambling for quick fixes rather than strategizing for the future. If all of this happened again tomorrow and everything shut down, are any unemployment agencies ready for this?
ALEXA TAPIA: You know, our country has operated off of the patchwork of unemployment insurance policies and under-resourced systems for decades and slashing down benefits, which has led to, even in the best case right now, there's not one agency across the country who has been able to weather this crisis perfectly, which points to this is an opportunity for federal and state-level reform that is necessary, because we know we are bound to face another crisis like this in the future.
Many states had to contract out with private companies and call center staff-- as we like to call it, a triage call center. But now that we know this is going to be around for a while, investing in skilled staff, especially to help handle those more complex claims.
JASON KNOWLES: Richards agrees.
KRISTIN RICHARDS: Quite frankly, it's hiring and training. It is building that headcount back up and building a team of trained personnel that can be ready to go so we're not left in this position of having to react very quickly with a workforce that feels as though they simply are underwater.
ROBERT BRUNO: In the previous years, there just wasn't an investment-- a proper investment. You have to think about the size of the Illinois economy and the large number of people in the workforce.
JASON KNOWLES: Experts say properly fixing the system now after the pandemic meltdown could prevent future problems.
ROBERT BRUNO: Learn a lesson from the current failure and don't make that same mistake again. Clearly, they've got to get the resources, right-- they've got to get the resources to be properly staffed and to have the hardware, to actually have the infrastructure to make this work. I would also think, I would expect that they've probably talked to other states too.
I mean, there are some states that haven't done even as well as Illinois, but there are other states that have done much better. And I would imagine there's some real learning that would go on if there was some good communication with them-- also working well with the Biden administration.
JASON KNOWLES: As the agency rebuilds, Donna Rucker remains determined to get her own life back on track.
DONNA RUCKER: I've decided to not give up-- to fight.
JASON KNOWLES: The I-team contacted state officials on behalf of the people featured in this investigation. Several have been told that help is on the way.
SAMANTHA CHATMAN: As the economy recovers, we'll continue to hold leaders accountable and find solutions for those who are still struggling.