Pritzker announces new measures for IDES to handle unemployment claims, possible leveling of COVID-19 cases

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker speaks during a previous daily briefing.

Editor’s Note: In an effort to keep the public informed during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have removed the paywall from this article. All listed data is pulled directly from IDPH and St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency. There may be discrepancies between the reported statistics. 
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By: Angela Simmons, Weekly Editor

At the April 13 COVID-19 briefing, Governor JB Pritzker announced new measures to process the hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims coming in to Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES), and talked about his new worker’s compensation mandate, as well as a possible leveling off of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases.

In the past five weeks, IDES has seen 513,173 initial unemployment claims, the largest number filed over 5 week period in state history. The number is greater than all claims filed in 2019, and is a 400 percent increase in the same 5 week time frame from the 2008 recession.

Governor Pritzker said he understands the frustrations many have had with the system, and reminded Illinoisans that the “system was built in 2010 after the Great Recession with the thought that unemployment would never be that bad again.”

173 employees man the call centers and have helped process 270,000 claims totaling more than $200 million. IDES brought back retirees- giving them laptops and assignments to allow them to work from home without increased risk of the virus. This, and other measures, have increased phone capacity by 40 percent, and they will be offering increased hours. IDES is establishing an outside call center with an additional 200 agents, all from Illinois, to help tackle the claims and lower wait times.

Pritzker also said that the online system has been completely overhauled, with load times now averaging less than a second, and verification checks being replaced with faster methods. He asked that those filing new claims still stick to the previously set alphabetized schedule.

Many have asked about the additional unemployment funds that were to be provided each week. Pritzker said “Last week was first week that federal CARES Act allowed for the additional $600 per week to the unemployed, and it has been added to checks for Illinoisans.”

Independent contractors, gig workers, and sole proprietors are still waiting for unemployment. Pritzker blamed slow guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on who was eligible for claims, but clarified that these Illinoisans would not receive unemployment until May. He added that other states processing claims for these workers may have money in their coffers now, where Illinois does not.

These workers can still apply now, and if ineligible for unemployment under the current system because of their independent employment status their applications will be held and processed in May.

Pritzker instituted an emergency mandate for the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission stating that for essential workers that contract COVID-19, it will be presumed that they contracted it through their job, and their treatment will be covered by workers’ compensation.

“For the workers continuing every day, we owe them a debt we can never repay. These emergency rules to be sure workers comp covers them while they’re on the job are effective immediately,” he said.

Alice Johnson, the executive director of the Illinois Nurses Association, said that nurses throughout Illinois face risks and make sacrifices daily, even without a pandemic, and are now getting sick. Johnson said that some employers have argued with nurses about where they contracted the virus, and that Pritzker’s mandate puts an end to that argument. She thanked Pritzker for “changes in the law to make sure that nurses can get the workers compensation benefits that they deserve.”

Chuck Sullivan, the president of the Associated Firefighters of Illinois, also thanked Pritzker for the change in the law, saying that firefighter EMTs and paramedics are “The first link in the public health chain.” Sullivan also said that fire departments have now become “hazard departments” as the respond not only to fires, but to car crashes, hazmat issues, asthma attacks, and now COVID-19 transport cases.

During her medical update for the day, Dr. Ngozi Ezike acknowledged that the virus is having a financial, mental, and emotional toll, and urged people to utilize the new mental health services by texting TALK talk to 55020 or HABLAR for Spanish to 55020, which will lead to a call from a certified mental health professional.

Dr. Ezike announced that 74 additional lives were lost to the virus, for a total of 794 deaths, and announced 1,173 new COVID cases for a total of 22,025 cases in 87 counties throughout the state. 105,768 people have been tested so far.

“Individuals impacted by this virus have touched nearly every part of our state. We need to stay the course, and continue staying home, washing our hands, maintain social distancing, and wearing our masks,” she said.

Pritzker echoed his statement from weekend press conferences that the numbers seem to be leveling, increasing arithmetically but not exponentially.

When asked repeated questions about schools canceling the rest of the year, or the extension of the current stay at home order that ends May 1, and asked about the possibility of President Trump canceling the order, Pritzker said governors make those decisions, not the president. “We want to lift the order as soon as we can, but we need to watch the curves and pay attention to the scientists who truly know more about immunology than elected officials that are not doctors.”

He continued “I think it’s likely that there will be adjustments to the order that we have in place, but we aren’t anywhere near herd immunity, and in order to get back to normal, we need widespread testing. We’re doing more and more every day.” He also added that Illinois needs a stronger contact tracing system and a treatment to be sure that future cases of COVID-19 are less severe than current cases.

“Nothing that happens in this month or the month after that will be as it was four months ago or five months ago, and the question isn’t ‘Would you do it,’ it would be ‘How would you do it to mitigate risks,’ and there’s not a perfect consensus,” he said.

Pritzker said he is talking to several heads of industry about possible mandates for the reopening of the economy, like having public health officials place mandates on how many people can be in each retail or manufacturing location, and he could mandate the use of masks in public, which is currently just a recommendation.

He added that he “can’t give a date” when current orders will be lifted. “Things have to evolve, and the numbers from IDPh guides me, as well as talks with epidemiologists from Illinois and around the world. There’s a building consensus that things are leveling more than they have before. That’s a very good thing, and we want to see things continue to move that direction, but the only reason it will is if people continue to stay home.”

St. Clair County now has 202 COVID-19 cases with 10 deaths. The most recent death was a male in his 70s that had underlying conditions. 896 residents have been tested so far, and 663 tests have been negative, while 40 tests are still pending results.

“We continue to rise, and we are still on the uptick, so remain vigilant,” said St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern.

By zip code, 62269 has 18 cases, 62208 has 15 cases, 62226 has 30 cases, and 62221 has 21 cases. A full list of cases by zip code can be found at https://www.dph.illinois.gov/covid19/covid19-statistics.