SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Illinois lifted all capacity limits and social distancing requirements for private businesses two months ago, ‘fully reopening’ from the restrictive pandemic protocols that confined public life for nearly a year-and-a-half. Yet, months after the state entered the new ‘Phase 5’ of Governor Pritzker’s plan to rebuild from the Coronavirus, approximately four in ten state workers are still working remotely.
A Pritzker administration memo says 40% of state workers in executive agencies are not reporting to work every day in the office, though several agency heads said their workers are still able to be effective and productive by working from home or by visiting the office on rotation in a hybrid manner.
The internal document, which was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, charts out how many workers from each agency are working from the office every day compared to how many are working virtually or “on rotation.” Out of 48,480 state workers in those agencies, 19,190 were listed as remote or on rotation at the time the July 9th memo was prepared. The figures merely represented a snapshot in time, and have likely fluctuated over the last few weeks as several agencies have ramped up efforts to negotiate a gradual return to government offices.
Nearly a third of those remote or hybrid workers were from the Department of Human Services, which had reported 55% of its workforce back in the office full-time. However, the agency said their productivity actually increased after they sent more than half of their workers home when the pandemic hit.
“Nearly half remained on site throughout the COVID-19 pandemic while the rest moved to remote or hybrid work status,” DHS spokesman Patrick Laughlin said in an email. “Many working remotely achieved significant productivity gains. The number of people served, and the pace of service improved in core program areas, including Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) and Medicaid for low-income families, and Home Services and Vocational Rehab services for people with disabilities.”
Last month, DHS says it brought 336 more workers back into the office on a “mostly hybrid” status. The latest figures show 6,840 DHS workers are back full time in-person (52%), while 4,928 (37%) are hybrid, and 1,422 (11%) are strictly working remotely.
The speed of the state’s return to in-person work has become a point of political tension between the Governor’s administration and Republicans in the legislature, especially after a dramatic surge in call volume from jobless workers seeking expanded federal unemployment benefits partially paralyzed the agency’s ability to respond during the early days of the pandemic.
In April and May of 2020, IDES call centers fielded 1.2 million calls per week, according to a briefing the state agency provided to legislators. During the month of April, each call center agent averaged receiving 35,000 calls per person. The call centers fielded a record of 1.8 million calls in one week in May.
Today, IDES officials say most callers who dial in with quick questions will receive a call back within a day or two. In some more involved cases that require more thorough investigation for a resolution, some callers may wait a week to ten days. At last report, 39% of IDES staff were reporting to work in government offices full time, though their offices remain closed to the public.
Senate Republicans urged Governor Pritzker “to focus on getting the executive branch offices back open as soon as possible.”
“It is extremely concerning that the Illinois Department of Employment Security offices are still closed, when unemployment benefits have clearly been one of the most important services offered by the state during the pandemic,” Senator Sally Turner (R-Beason) wrote. All 16 of her Senate Republican colleagues signed the letter, which was dated July 15th.
Pritzker responded two weeks later, writing that the Illinois Department of Employment Security deployed more than $30 billion in benefits to more than a million claimants, and highlighted that “waiting times are the lowest they’ve been since March 2020.”
The agency said it plans to “roll out a phased reopening” of American Jobs Centers “later this summer.” Before they closed to the public, these locations were resource hubs for job seekers who needed help filling out a resume or connecting with prospective employers at job fairs.
“Please recall that before the pandemic, IDES offices were primarily job centers – in other words, applications for and processing of unemployment benefits took chiefly place online and over the phone,” Pritzker said. “When they fully reopen, they will continue their work of offering in-person support for job seekers.”
Pritzker reiterated his intent to maintain the expanded federal jobless benefits through the first week of September when they are scheduled to expire, “despite the calls of Illinois Republicans to cut off pandemic unemployment benefits early.”
“It is entirely unclear to me how anyone could call themselves a public servant and then, after all the pain of the last 17 months, seek to throw more uncertainty into their constituents’ lives,” he responded. “If opening IDES offices to in-person service is of the utmost importance to you, I would assume it’s because you recognize that unemployment benefits are a vital lifeline for your constituents. And if that is the case, then I would also then expect you to stand up for your constituents and make sure they get all the benefits to which they are entitled.”
“It’s time to end expanded unemployment,” Turner said in an interview from her government office in Lincoln. “You talk to any of these businesses downtown, restaurants, some of our little shops, they can’t find people to come back to work. And it’s not because they’re scared to come back to work because someone’s unvaccinated or they’re afraid they’re going to get the Delta variant. That’s not it. They make more money not coming back to work.”
IDES officials have also cited a number of security concerns, including bomb threats and staff intimidation, that complicate their plans to return to the office and meet with people face-to-face. As they prepare for the eventual return, agency administrators have begun providing sensitive training for staff who meet a person in crisis. Employees say they are being taught tactics on how to handle a variety of challenging or high-stress encounters, including threats of suicide or violence.
“I will not put employees’ lives at risk,” Pritzker wrote. “In the case of IDES, their physical offices continue to deal with grave, life-threatening risks such as bomb threats, arson and threats of physical violence made at employees’ homes. Reopening IDES offices is taking place in coordination with the Illinois State Police, and will be done when it is safe to do so.”
Other state agencies routinely encounter volatile situations in the regular course of their work, though some of their in-person interactions were also limited when the pandemic first hit. The Department of Children and Family Services has 35% of its workforce back inside government offices full-time, while 60% continue their work in a hybrid manner, and five percent complete “tele-work” from home, according to a spokesman who said last month’s report showing just 10% of its workforce had returned to the office full time was outdated.
“The majority of DCFS employees working remotely or in a hybrid situation are frontline staff who are in the field investigating claims of abuse or neglect or providing ongoing services to families in need,” DCFS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in an email. “They continue to do their jobs as they have throughout the pandemic, by visiting children and families and then filing reports and helping families connect with services from home instead of in an office.”
In addition to safety concerns over violence or threats, most state agencies are negotiating medical and logistical challenges with unions before bringing all of their workers back into the office. Several agencies, such as DHS, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Healthcare and Family Services (HFS), have encouraged state workers to disclose their vaccination status to their supervisors.
“Some of our employees are still able to perform many of their duties remotely,” HFS spokesperson Jamie Munks said. That agency reported 17% of its staff is back to work in the office full time, while 34% work remotely, and 49% are on a hybrid shift.
“We have been actively working on a more robust return-to-office plan for employees to be in the office more routinely,” Munks said, “though given the evolving pandemic and the recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases, we continue to carefully evaluate our work environments across the Department, and will continue to prioritize those that allow us to work as safely and effectively as possible.
The Department of Revenue (IDOR), which has 405 employees (31%) working in the office, 532 (40%) completing ‘tele-work’ from home, and 353 staff (27%) rotating in and out of the office, says 253 of those remote workers (29%) are field auditors who worked remotely even prior to the pandemic. IDOR says is not asking employees about their vaccination status. Two percent of the agency’s staff is on a reported leave of absence.
Out of 5,001 employees at the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), 2,848 (57%) of them were back in the office full time, while 2,148 (43%) were still working remotely or hybrid last month.
“Transportation is considered an essential service in Illinois,” IDOT spokesman Paul Wappel said in an email. “During these unprecedented times, we have remained on the job. While some of our staff may not have been in their traditional offices, work has nevertheless continued throughout the department since the COVID-19 pandemic began.”
Three agencies, the Department of Military Affairs, Department of Natural Resources, and the Illinois Power Agency, said 100% of their workforce was reporting to the office every day. The Department of Corrections and Department of Veterans’ Affairs were next highest, with 94% and 93% return rates.
Twelve smaller state agencies, which employ a combined total of 209 workers, reported none of their employees were back to work in the office full time.
The report did not detail the number of government employees who are back to work full time in the other statewide constitutional offices, such as the Treasurer, Comptroller, Attorney General, or Secretary of State.
Editors’ Note: This article was updated to note how many Department of Revenue staff worked remotely prior to the pandemic.