Illinois’ unemployment problems persist six months into pandemic

By GREG BISHOP,  The Center Square

Problems with unemployment in Illinois continue to mount nearly six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and state lawmakers are demanding a seat at the table to find solutions.

An economist says unemployment will continue to trend downward, but it’s going to be driven by consumer confidence.

The U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday reported an additional 23,300 Illinoisans filed for initial unemployment claims last week, nearly 2,900 fewer than the week before. There have been more than 1.4 million Illinoisans who have filed for initial unemployment benefits since the beginning of March.

“The No. 1 constituent service request I get right now is help with unemployment, help with housing,” said state Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago.

On Friday, State Sen. Don DeWitte, R-St. Charles, highlighted constituents who’ve had a series of problems getting benefits they’re owed.

Sue Sloan was let go from her job at a gym. She got unemployment benefits for months, but was later told she had to pay them back and she can’t get anyone at the state to explain what’s happening.

“I don’t know how I’m going to make a $700 payment every month,” Sloan said. “But suddenly I’m going to. Or come up with $7,000 to pay [the state].”

DeWitte said the Pritzker administration has failed Sloan and other constituents across the state by not anticipating the need when it shut down sectors of the economy. He said the frustration grows every day the legislature is left out of helping to solve the problem.

“How about including the Legislature in this process, and appreciating and respecting the constitution of this state which does have three branches of government?” DeWitte said.

The state has also failed to address the issue of the employer-funded unemployment trust fund that could have up to an $8 billion deficit, DeWitte said.

“I have never been critical of the governor for taking the aggressive measures he’s taken in regards to masking and distancing and the closure orders,” DeWitte said. “But seven months in … getting the economy open back up would certainly put people back to work and feed the revenue streams.”

DeWitte said everyone is going to approach this differently.

“We are at the point where there are those who chose to be careful to protect themselves and prevent the spread, and there is that percentage of the population that have decided they’re not going to deal with it in that fashion,” DeWitte said. “The thought process is we should open up and there will be those who chose to be smart and those who don’t may suffer the consequences.”

CATO Institute economist Jeffrey Miron agreed.

“There’s a ton of heterogeneity across people,” Miron said. “Not everyone behaves the same way in response to either the threat of the virus or in response to the policies.”

Miron said consumer confidence is going to be a major factor in getting back to low unemployment levels. He said one thing that could power an economic recovery is having a vaccine available.

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