Idled gig workers, contractors wait on state for federal aid
After weeks of nothing from the Illinois Department of Employment Security, Ron Smaga was gratified by a letter from the agency acknowledging that he exists.
But a check would have been better.
"The unknown is something I hate," said the Bloomingdale resident.
Smaga, an independent contractor, should be entitled to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance under a federal economic stimulus bill passed in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
However, he's in limbo along with other independent contractors and gig workers who typically don't receive unemployment benefits but whose livelihoods were affected by COVID-19.
Smaga first tried to file his unemployment insurance claim on March 28, got an error message and was logged off the state's system.
The disconnect came as the state struggled to process an avalanche of unemployment claims.
On March 20, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a stay-at-home order shuttering businesses across Illinois to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
From March 1 to April 18, IDES processed more than 755,000 initial unemployment claims, 12 times what the agency handled in 2019 over the same period, officials reported Friday.
Smaga, 65, retired from his job as a property manager at the end of 2019, timing everything so he could have cataract surgery. After recovering, Smaga returned to his company as an independent contractor in February but was laid off in mid-March.
The state is doing its utmost to catch up with claims, Pritzker said. It has hired consultants, recruited retired employees to help, and is paying overtime to meet demand.
According to Schaumburg Democrat U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi's office, IDES doesn't have the systems in place to process independent contractor claims.
But the agency "is contracting with Deloitte to implement and maintain a web-based solution for PUA" that should be operating by the week of May 11, said the agency's information strategy director, Rebecca Cisco.
On April 7, Smaga finally heard from the agency, which scheduled a phone interview for today to discuss his unemployment benefits application.
"There's no way a crystal ball could say back in February what was going to happen," Smaga said, but the state agency could have communicated better, he believes.
His fingers are crossed he'll be approved and receive a check by June to help cover a $3,000 or so property tax bill.
Under the stimulus bill passed in late March, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance provides up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits.
The Illinois Department of Employment Security website at www2.illinois.gov/ides/ offers more information and encourages unemployed individuals to file even if they think they're not eligible.