This is a guest post from Max Barack, head of employment law at the Garfinkel Group, LLC. Check him out! LinkedIn

For the employer’s perspective, check out COVID-19 Employer Questions: Unemployment by our attorney Rebecca Lyon.

If your business has hit trouble because of the pandemic and you need guidance, the attorneys at G & G Law have assembled a toolkit of accessible, easy-to-digest information that answers many common questions we’ve received from our clients. You can read more about it and purchase it here.

Last updated on March 23rd, 2020


The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused chaos for Illinois workers and employers alike. Even before Governor Pritzker issued his March 20 Shelter-in-Place order, many businesses began feeling the effects of people implementing a self-quarantine. As a result, many businesses are now in damage control mode and have been forced to initiate layoffs, meaning many workers are finding themselves out of a job.

While the job market is obviously not good, one protection Illinois workers have during this uncertain time is access to unemployment insurance benefits (“UI benefits”). These benefits are usually available to most workers already, but the Illinois Department of Economic Security (“IDES”) enacted some changes to help streamline its processes and increase access to benefits under the current circumstances.


Unemployment Insurance Benefits (Generally)

UI benefits generally provide temporary income security to Illinois workers. The State of Illinois operates the program, though it can be subsidized by the federal government. It is designed to partially compensate workers for loss of wages when they are out of work.

The program ensures that, if you meet the eligibility requirements of the law, you will have some income while you are looking for a job, up to a maximum of 26 full weeks in a one-year period. However, UI benefits cannot protect against wage losses while someone is absent from work due to illness or has chosen not to work.

To be eligible, a person must have been separated from employment through no fault of their own and meet the other eligibility requirements. This includes being able and available to work, registering with the state employment service, and actively seeking work. There are some other requirements, like that applicants must continue applying for jobs and tracking their applications.


Eligibility (Generally)

Under normal circumstances, IDES lists the following requirements to determine a worker’s eligibility:

  1. You are unemployed through no fault of your own;
  2. You were paid $1,600 or more in wages during your base period;
  3. You were paid at least $440 of your base period wages at any time during the base period outside the calendar quarter in which your wages were highest; and
  4. You are registered for work with IDES.


Calculating UI Benefits

Calculating workers’ weekly benefit amounts involves applying a specific formula. Step one involves taking someone’s earnings during their “base period,” during which they earned the most money (their highest pay or salary during that time), and adding all of those wages together. Step two is to multiply 47% of the total wages. Step three is to divide the result by 26. The “base period” consists of the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters immediately preceding the beginning of the benefit year. There are four quarters in a calendar-year: January–March, April–June, July–September and October–December.

An example might be helpful to illustrate this process. If someone had a steady job during the entire base period and earned $20,000 per year, in the highest two quarters, that person would have earned $10,000 total. That means that IDES will take 47% of that total, ($4,700), and divide it by 26 to calculate the weekly benefits the worker would receive: $180.77. Assuming the worker remained unemployed for 26 weeks, they would receive that total benefit for up to 26 weeks.

This is obviously just one example. You should visit the IDES website for additional information regarding eligibility for, calculating, and applying for benefits.


Applying for UI Benefits during the COVID-19 Emergency

Many workers have obviously lost their jobs directly and indirectly due to the COVID-19 crisis. Fortunately, IDES has adopted emergency rules to make the UI benefits system as responsible and user-friendly as possible.

IDES recently announced that some of the normal hurdles workers need to clear in order to apply for and qualify for benefits have been removed altogether or simplified. IDES has identified several situations where workers who would normally be ineligible for benefits are now eligible due to COVID-19. These includes individuals temporarily laid off due to COVID-19, who , because their employers have temporarily closed, do not have work available. This also includes workers otherwise laid off for reasons related to COVID-19. Workers in these situations would qualify for benefits as long as they are able and available for and actively seeking work. Under emergency rules IDES recently adopted, an individual in either of these scenarios would not have to register with the employment service. They would be considered as actively seeking work as long as they are prepared to return to their job as soon as the employer reopened.

That does not mean that EVERYONE who is affected by COVID-19 will qualify. Individuals who have already exhausted their 26-week UI benefit allotment are, for the moment, still ineligible. Also, someone who quits their job because they are just worried generally about COVID-19 would not qualify. IDES’ website addresses this situation specifically, and explains:

An individual who leaves work voluntarily without a good reason attributable to the employer is generally disqualified from receiving UI. The eligibility of an individual in this situation will depend on whether the facts of his or her case demonstrate the individual had a good reason for quitting and that the reason was attributable to the employer. An individual generally has a duty to make a reasonable effort to work with his or her employer to resolve whatever issues have caused the individual to consider quitting.

IDES has addressed some other COVID-19-related unemployment situations as well to help people determine their eligibility. Other people who IDES has made clear will, assuming they meet other requirements, be eligible for UI benefits include workers confined to home because they have been diagnosed with the virus, because a child was diagnosed with COVID-19, because of a government-imposed quarantine, and someone confined to home because their child’s school is closed due to the outbreak.

The easiest way to apply for IDES benefits right now is to do so online. Under normal times, workers can either locate a local IDES office or call in. However, currently all offices are closed to in-person appointments, so online applications (available here) are the easiest way to apply.

Normally, there is a one-week waiting period for benefits, which is required by law, and during which time an applicant is not paid. However, IDES has waived its normal 7-day waiting period and laid off workers can apply immediately. Applicants having issues with their benefits or the online process can still call customer service lines (800-244-5631 or 866-488-4016 TTY).

UI benefits are obviously not a cure-all for what many workers are currently facing. However, they offer temporary relief for many and have been made much more accessible.



Max is a Member at the Garfinkel Group, LLC, where he leads the employment law group. Previously he was a partner at Favaro & Gorman, Ltd., where he worked from January 2017 until February 2020. Max is a plaintiff-side civil rights employment lawyer. He represents victims of sexual, racial and national origin harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, as well as victims of wage theft, unpaid overtime, and whistleblowers. Max has given presentations on the difficulties and best practices for handling social media and other forms of electronic discovery in litigation, Illinois employees’ workplace privacy rights, the tort of retaliatory discharge, and new employment laws that will take effect in 2020. He has extensive experience with electronic discovery in the context of civil rights cases. He has performed in-depth research on and helped write an article on the rights of public employees. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA) Illinois Chapter, a member of the Board of Managers for the Decalogue Society, and a member of the Illinois State Bar Association and the Chicago Bar Association. Max speaks Spanish and represents Spanish-speaking plaintiffs in a variety of employment-related cases.

Max grew up in the Chicago area. He graduated from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 2013, where he was a member of the Moot Court Honor Society and served on student government. Previously, he attended the University of Michigan and graduated with honors and a bachelor’s degree in history. He still lives in Chicago.