As Americans continue to shelter in place amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a record 22 million people have filed for unemployment over the past four weeks, and many more have struggled to access benefits. But some of the very workers who process those claims have started to fear for their own health.
Multiple employees with the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) told The Daily Beast they were being forced to work in an unsafe office environment even though they could theoretically get their jobs done from home.
“A quarter of our office is not coming in because they don’t want to die,” one IDES employee told The Daily Beast.
The Daily Beast is withholding the identity of the IDES workers after employees expressed fear of retaliation for speaking out. But conversations with the workers, coupled with internal emails and an Illinois Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaint reviewed by The Daily Beast, paint a picture of disturbing conditions on a vital front line of the coronavirus crisis.
“Nobody is wearing masks,” said another IDES worker. “There is no social distancing.”
After this story was published, a spokesperson for IDES told The Daily Beast the agency had been deemed essential. “Because of this, there are essential employees who are required to report to their physical work location, although we are working to provide as many essential employees as possible with the proper IT, privacy, and confidentiality resources to continue and complete their work from home.”
“Additionally, we are procuring 150 laptops and utilizing Citrix for those who are currently working from home and for those transitioning into remote work from home," the statement continued. “That being said, there are some essential employees who will be required to continue to report to their physical work locations because that work cannot be done remotely (e.g. mail room staff).”
The spokesperson also said that social distancing was practiced, that the offices were sanitized daily by a third party, that employees were permitted to wear masks and gloves, and that they could be reimbursed for up to $50 of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Likewise, after an employee filed an Illinois OSHA complaint over allegedly unsafe working conditions—claiming that social distancing practices and sanitation were not up to par at an office in Chicago—the agency said in a formal response that it conducted an internal investigation and found little reason for concern.
In an email, a spokesperson from the Illinois Department of Labor told The Daily Beast of the complaint, “The response from the employer in this matter was deemed satisfactory, and the complaint will be closed unless appealed by the complainant.”
Employees remain concerned.
One email showed an IDES worker reaching out to management, concerned that they may have been exposed to COVID-19. The employee asked to work from home and quarantine. But emails show that the employee’s manager told the concerned worker they would either need to use their personal benefit time, request advanced sick leave, or take leave with no pay.
Another IDES worker told The Daily Beast that the employee who was potentially exposed made the decision to come to work despite possibly being infected. They explained that most workers in the office cannot afford to stay home without pay, and suggested the impact of the office's policies hit some communities harder than others.
“The majority of the people in my office are Hispanic or Black,” said one worker. “Many are older and have underlying health conditions.”
IDES workers claimed that other employees with similar job responsibilities were being allowed to work from home.
“[IDES is] saying we don’t have the capability to work from home because we don’t have state-issued laptops. But they know there are other [IDES] workers signing on at home from their personal computers. We all know that it’s no secret,” said an IDES adjudicator.
“There is nobody in my office who can’t do their job from home,” said another IDES worker.
Employees said that even if data security is the issue, providing workers with the equipment to work from home (state-issued laptops) would save money in the long run. More workers would be able to log more hours at home, without the stress of an unsanitary office environment, they said.
Meanwhile, IDES appeals judges and administrative judges are all working from home, according to three workers who spoke with The Daily Beast. “They basically do the exact same type of work that we do,” said a worker. “The only difference is that they are lawyers and we aren’t.”
The same IDES worker expressed frustration at the “need to be babysat” by their supervisors.
“Most of us have been around for years and know the system very well. We don’t need a lot of hand holding,” they said.
It would be one thing if they were handling a normal number of unemployment claims, workers said. But instead, they face a historic surge in new claims that have completely overwhelmed the agency.
“People aren’t getting their money, and we have thousands and thousands of cases,” said another worker. “It could be a single document holding up someone’s unemployment money. We could process thousands of more cases a week if we were able to work from home.”
On Monday, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced that the state would call back some retired IDES workers to help manage the near impossible caseload. Many of those workers are being allowed to work from home, according to the IDES workers who spoke with The Daily Beast.
At the heart of the matter is consistency in policy, workers said. They don’t understand why some employees are deemed essential to the office while others are able to work remotely.
“We are pissed, but it feels like there is nothing we can do about it,” one worker said.