Fact-Check: Pritzker’s Mostly Correct About Illinois’ Historic Unemployment Spike

Speaking to the challenges the state unemployment system faced when COVID-19 struck, Gov. Pritzker said unemployment claims topped numbers seen during the Great Recession many times over. His estimate is in the ballpark.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Overwhelmed by a surge in unemployment claims during the COVID-19 recession, the Illinois Department of Employment Security has faced criticism for lengthy backlogs, a data breach and user fraud.

During an Aug. 4 news conference, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker defended his agency’s response given the tsunami of new claims flooding in.

“IDES, as you know, was hit with something no one expected: 10 to 20 times the claims, even during the worst recession of my lifetime. That was the 2008-2009 recession,” Pritzker said. “No one expected that we could see a recession worse than that one.”

Nationwide, initial unemployment claims last week dipped below 1 million for the first time since March, but the figures remain staggeringly high. Even so, we wondered if the number of claims filed in the early weeks of the pandemic in Illinois really reached the levels Pritzker suggested.

So we reached out to the governor’s office to ask for the data.

Spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh sent us IDES figures for initial unemployment claims for each week of the current recession, which officially began in February. She highlighted two separate weeks when the number of claims reached a peak, and sent data for the corresponding weeks of the Great Recession which started in December 2007.

In week nine of the current recession, the week ending April 4, 2020, IDES received more than 202,000 new unemployment claims — 12.5 times more than the roughly 16,000 the agency received for week nine of the 2008 recession.

And in week 15 of the current recession, the week ending May 16, 2020, initial claims spiked again as jobless workers in the gig economy and others who were previously ineligible for unemployment insurance began to apply under the new federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. That week, IDES received a little over 10 times the number of new claims it got in week 15 of the previous recession.

Both peak weeks fall within the range Pritzker cited even though they don’t reach as high as 20 times more, or even 15 times more. Tallies for other weeks this year outpaced the comparable period of the Great Recession but by less than 10 fold.

Experts told us it was fair for Pritzker to highlight those early spikes given the unique challenges state unemployment systems faced in processing claims because of the sudden health crisis sweeping the nation.

“It was all of a sudden, just everybody at once,” said Eliza Forsythe, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s School of Labor & Employment Relations. “Because it was so fast, these claims were many times over what we usually see, even in other recessions.”

Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, said although there are multiple ways to compare this recession, “they all point to a surge in initial unemployment claims of historic proportions.”

Pritzker’s spokeswoman also told us the governor’s claim referred to the difference between the claims IDES is seeing this year and the numbers it normally receives. Pritzker did not make this clear in his original remarks.

“The governor is saying IDES is seeing 10-20x the claims they normally do as well as EVEN more than the worst recession,” Abudayyeh wrote in an email.

IDES data backs that up. New claims this year outpaced those received in Illinois last year by 10 or more times in 10 of the last 20 weeks. In three of those weeks, cases were between 20 and 23 times greater than the same period in 2019.

Our ruling

Pritzker said when COVID-19 struck, IDES “was hit with something no one expected: 10 to 20 times the claims, even during the worst recession of my lifetime.”

His office pointed to two weeks when state data show new unemployment claims surged by as much as 12 times the number of initial claims received in the same weeks during the 2008 recession. Those two weeks of peak claims fall within the range Pritzker cited, if not hitting 20.

His spokeswoman also told us the governor was referring to the difference between the claims IDES is seeing this year and the numbers it normally receives, which is supported by the data too. However, that more accurate comparison wasn’t made clear in his remarks.

We rate his claim Mostly True.


MOSTLY TRUE — The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

Sources

Video: Gov. Pritzker news conference, Illinois Department of Central Management Services, Aug. 4, 2020

Emails & phone calls: Jordan Abudayyeh, Pritzker spokesperson, Aug. 10-13, 2020

Illinois Department of Employment Security weekly unemployment insurance initial claims data, provided by Gov. Pritzker’s office

Phone interview: Eliza Forsythe, assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Labor & Employment Relations and Department of Economics, Aug. 13, 2020

Email: Justin Wolfers, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, Aug. 12, 2020

Phone interview: Gary Burtless, senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution, Aug. 11, 2020

Email: Michael Hicks, professor of economics and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, Aug. 11, 2020