EYE ON ILLINOIS: Federal aid scheme another blow for state’s beleaguered unemployment agency

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A dark time for the Illinois Department of Employment Security somehow got worse Wednesday with the announcement of a nationwide fraud scheme connected to the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. 

The well-intended program, enacted to provide fully-funded benefits to independent contractors and others whose claims aren’t checked against a regular employer, is ripe for schemes from people using stolen identities and switching from debit cards to direct deposit.

“If you received a debit card in the mail, do not activate it,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at a Wednesday news conference. “It’s also highly recommended that you check your credit report for possible suspicious activity. Again, this is a problem being experienced all across the country right now because the national program was poorly designed and susceptible to fraud.”

Although this is a nationwide scheme, it is particularly frustrating in Illinois because of the long list of existing, unsolved problems with the same agency.

Earlier this month Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino released a compliance report covering July 2017 through June 2019 that showed IDES didn’t properly classify data to protect it from cyber attacks. As such, a massive data breach discovered in May 2020 wasn’t exactly shocking.

More recently, Pritzker had to tap Kristin Richards as the agency’s permanent director, replacing acting director Tom Chan, who had presided over a rocky four months of historic claim spikes owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Faced with unprecedented demand that totally overwhelmed staff and systems, IDES developed a system allowing claimants to sign up to be called when an agent was available instead of simply waiting on hold. But the end result for many was still waiting, not just hours but several days in some cases. While that’s better than putting your entire life on hold with a phone on your ear, no form of waiting pays the rent.

With federal supplemental assistance in imminent danger of disappearing unless Congress quickly negotiates a new coronavirus relief package — and when was the last time Congress did anything good in a hurry? — the problems at IDES are putting an untold number of the state’s residents in an unthinkably difficult spot.

It’s impossible to blame state government for the onset of a global pandemic. And although there remains significant support for measures that prioritize health measures in this moment, it was clear many such strategies would drive up need for IDES services, and four months into this seems a reasonable amount of time to work out at least a few of those wrinkles.

Illinoisans definitely deserve better than this debacle, which means Pritzker and Richards need to both increase transparency about the agency’s struggles and lay out exactly what needs to happen to realize real solutions.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at [ mailto:sholland@shawmedia.com ]sholland@shawmedia.com.

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via | Northwest Herald

July 23, 2020 at 08:33PM

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