SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Senate Republicans on Thursday called for a deep dive into pandemic-driven problems in the state's unemployment insurance program after a routine audit found $155 million in potentially invalid benefits paid in just the first few months of the COVID-19 crisis.
The virus put millions of Americans out of work, including record numbers in Illinois in spring 2020, overwhelming Gov. J.B. Pritzker's Department of Employment Security.
A report by Auditor General Frank Mautino, which covered a period that ended June 30, 2020, found that state unemployment agency paid $97 million to those receiving more than the minimum weekly amount of $198 without validating their wages and $42 million to nearly 4,600 claimants without validating their identities. Nearly $2.7 million was paid to 266 claimants who listed their birthdays as the same day they applied or some future date. And 35 people who were dead received more than $343,000.
“This report is just the beginning of what will be found," Sen. Sue Rezin, a Morris Republican, said in a teleconference with reporters. "The governor has an obligation to the people of Illinois to inform them exactly how much money the state has lost because of this administration’s shortcomings.”
The Democratic governor's administration laid the blame at the feet of former Republican President Donald Trump for leaving the newly designed pandemic unemployment system up to the states with ever-changing rules.
The audit findings “are the result of that burden placed on state unemployment systems across the country as they simultaneously worked to quickly get billions of dollars into the hands of an unprecedented number of claimants in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis,” Illinois Department of Employment Security spokeswoman Rebecca Cisco said in a written statement.
The administration did not comment on whether it supported a special audit. The Senate GOP's resolution seeking the review cannot be acted on until the Senate reconvenes — scheduled for the fall — or the bipartisan Legislative Audit Commission takes it up.
Republicans complained from the beginning that Pritzker's administration was not doing enough to help desperate families who couldn't get through on the agency's lines and that fraud was going undetected.
Many have complained the agency still is unresponsive, with local offices closed because of the virus. Through last week, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported that COVID-19 had led to 23,401 deaths in Illinois among 1.4 million confirmed or probable cases.
While many expected widespread vaccination to have the virus in retreat by now, it continues to rebuff submission. Pritzker announced late Thursday that face coverings necessary to stymie transmission will again be required in all state facilities, regardless of vaccination status. Pritzker said it was necessary because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most counties in Illinois are reporting “substantial” or “high” COVID-19 transmission, including Cook County, where Chicago is located.
Pritzker again touted vaccines not only as a way to stay healthy but to prevent the virus.
“Vaccines work, but we cannot promise those protections for every single future variant if we allow this virus to spread and mutate unchecked in our communities," Pritzker said in a statement.
He urged people who resist vaccination to consult a trusted medical professional to answer their questions.
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