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Local

Almost 73,000 unemployment claims filed in the past week in Illinois

Update comes after national unemployment rate rose to worst since Great Depression

A woman looks at signs at a store closed due to COVID-19 in Niles, Ill., Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
A woman looks at signs at a store closed due to COVID-19 in Niles, Ill., Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The number of initial Illinois unemployment benefits claims keeps going down week over week since Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker's stay-at-home order began in March – but the number still remains high in comparison to last year.

State residents filed 72,671 claims for unemployment benefits last week, according to revised numbers released Thursday from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. That’s a 2% decrease from the revised total of 74,476 for the week ending May 2, per state data.

According to state data for the week ending May 2, the number of initial unemployment claims in Illinois was still nearly 700% more than it was last year around the same time.

The update comes after the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week the national unemployment rate for April rose to 14.7% due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The April rate was also the most sudden increase since the bureau started keeping the statistic in 1948, with the number of civilians with jobs falling by 20.5 million between March and April.

Carl Campbell, economics professor and department chair for Northern Illinois University, said the April unemployment rate is the the worst it has been since the Great Depression during the 1930s, which was about 25% at its highest. He said the previous highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression was 10.8% in the early 1980s.

"For the last 75 years, this is unprecedented," Campbell said.

Last week's total in Illinois was a 64% decrease from the 201,041 total for the week ending April 4, per state data. Total weekly initial filed unemployment claims statewide that were related to COVID-19 started decreasing from that point.

Illinois was not among the states with the largest increases or decreases in initial claims, nor was it among states with the highest unemployment rates within the country for the week ending May 9, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

However, Illinois received more than 1 million initial unemployment claims from March 1 through May 2, according to a May 7 IDES news release. That’s double the total number of initial claims for all of 2019 – which was more than 476,000 – and nearly six times the amount of claims filed in the first two months of the 2008 Great Recession, per state data.

IDES officials said in an April 16 news release the unemployment rate rose to 4.6% in March, following a record low at 3.4% in February. There were nearly 292,300 civilians who were out of work in March and more than 6 million employed, according to state and federal data.

However, state and federal data focuses on full-time workers and many part-time workers may not have been typically eligible for unemployment.

Campbell said unemployment rates also don't include the number of people who are unemployed but not looking for another job.

"if you include those figures, the unemployment rate would be much higher," Campbell said.

State employment security officials said May 5 a new application portal is now open through the agency's website for workers who receive 1099 tax forms – otherwise called independent contractors – and have lost work due to COVID-19. The portal has been open since Monday.

Rebecca Cisco, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Employment Security, wrote in a May 7 email those workers should first file for regular unemployment benefits before filing for the state's Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, program.

"Being denied regular benefits is the first step in determining eligibility for a PUA claim," Cisco wrote.

Campbell said the additional assistance the federal government has been offering, including stimulus checks and the PUA program, is also more generous than it has been in the past for economic situations like this. He said unemployment benefits requests previously have been provided by just states and eligible unemployed workers – who previously didn't include gig workers – would usually get about half of their previous wage and they couldn't collect those benefits if they only started working there recently.

"So a lot more people are eligible than they have been before," Campbell said.

Campbell said the difficulty lies in actually receiving the unemployment benefits, with state systems being overwhelmed by requests. State employment security officials have said they have worked to address those system overload issues by overhauling the agency's website infrastructure, expanding its call center capacity and securing private partnerships to expand the capacity in its existing systems and to implement new programs.

In April, there were 372,220 unemployment claims filed within the Shaw Media Illinois coverage area in northern Illinois, according to by-county unemployment data from the state. That amounted to a nearly 27% increase in total filed unemployment claims in April from March within northern Illinois, including Bureau, Carroll, Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kendall, Lake, La Salle, Lee, McHenry, Ogle, Putnam, Whiteside and Will counties.

Putnam County saw the largest percentage increase – nearly 51% – in filed unemployment claims in April from March out of the 16 counties, according to state unemployment data. Grundy County saw the smallest percentage increase – nearly 2% – in filed unemployment claims.

By comparison, there were 293,948 unemployment claims filed in March – amounting to a more than 1,150% increase in total filed unemployment claims in March from February – in northern Illinois, according to state data released in April. There were at least three-digit percentage increases in filed unemployment claims among the 16 counties.

DuPage County saw the largest percentage increase – 1,460% – in filed unemployment claims in March from February out of the 16 counties, per state data. Ogle County saw the smallest percentage increase – 297% – in filed unemployment claims.

To file an unemployment claim through the State of Illinois and to view instructions on how to do so, visit www2.illinois.gov/ides.

Campbell said he's unsure of how long state unemployment financial reserves will last. However, he said, unemployment rates has been low for last couple of years up to this point.

"That probably helps the situation," Campbell said.

Cisco wrote in an additional email Thursday, May 14 that the state unemployment trust fund is continuously appropriated, or put aside, specifically to pay claims. She wrote IDES has the authority to borrow money from the federal government to continue to meet benefit obligations if those state reserves are insufficient.

"Additionally, all of the new unemployment packages included in the CARES Act (FPUC, PEUC, and PUA) are federally funded," Cisco wrote.

Campbell said it may be clearer by the end of the month as other parts of the state may be able to re-open per the governor's Restore Illinois plan divided by state region. If parts of the state can safely re-open soon, "it's not going to be a complete turnaround [economically], but it'll be a step in the right direction."

Campbell said 90% of unemployment in Illinois is in Cook and the collar counties, whereas the other 10% is in the rest of state – and the state is unusual in having unemployment being concentrated to that area.

Another thing to note is, while the businesses that practiced social distancing measures during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 ended up being better off in the long run, there were never quarantine-like restrictions enforced in the country and entire businesses weren't forced to close down, Campbell said. He said businesses continuing to operate safely even at about a quarter of its capacity and continue to maintain health recommendations would make a better difference economically, as opposed to the total closures.

Campbell said he doubts the economic situation caused by the pandemic will last for as long as the Great Depression did. However, he said, when it will end will depend on whether a cure can be found, testing can be expanded, when a vaccine will be developed or herd immunity would occur otherwise, and how comfortable people will be in going back to businesses that were previously closed due to COVID-19 concerns.

"I think unemployment is going to remain high until people feel safe going to public gatherings, sporting events, restaurants – things like that," Campbell said.

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