Unemployed don't have to trade benefits for books

Sean F. Driscoll

Out of work for nearly three years, Jean Eige isn’t against going back to school. She had always believed, however, that going back to the classroom would mean she’d lose her unemployment benefits.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was looking into the possibility,” the Rockford resident said. “But I called the state’s job hot line, and after 45 minutes on hold I asked the guy if I went back to school if my benefits would be canceled, and he said they would. So that was the end of that.”

Eige, whose unemployment benefits are now exhausted, suffered from the same misconception as many of the area’s unemployed — if being available for work is a prerequisite to getting unemployment, going back to school would make them ineligible for jobless benefits. The state law seems clear, but the reality is anything but.

A job seeker’s “availability” can be made on a case-by-case basis by Illinois Department of Employment Security staff. And most participants in the Dislocated Worker Program get approved to go back to school and keep their benefits, too.

“If someone is seeking some training or educational opportunity that will expand their employability in their field, we’ll certainly look at that more positively than someone seeking some other opportunities,” said IDES spokesman Greg Rivara.

No cut-and-dry definition

The definition of “available” also can be prone to interpretation, Rivara said.

With flexible class schedules, job seekers can take classes early in the morning or in the evening and still be able to work a full-time job. Also, if classes are packed into one or two days, unemployment benefits still can be granted for the other days in the week that aren’t filled with schooling.

“I think an individual would be hard-pressed to explain they’re available for work if they’re taking a 20-hour class load,” he said. “I think they’ll have a less challenging time showing they’re available for work if someone is updating their computer skills by taking a night class. I don’t think that would preclude most people from also being able to take a job.”

Training also OK

Counselors at the local Dislocated Worker Program, which administers about $2 million in federal training funds, often hear questions similar to Eige’s, said Director Granada Williams.

The staff is careful to follow IDES regulations and make sure their participants fill out the appropriate paperwork to keep collecting unemployment benefits while in training, she said.

“Some of it is determined on an individual basis, but largely with the Dislocated Worker Program, IDES is more prone to being receptive to giving an allowance to our participants,” she said.

Those waivers are normally only granted to people going through a Workforce Investment Act program such as the Dislocated Worker Program, but IDES does examine cases on an individual basis, said John Strandin, public relations manager for the local Workforce Investment Board.

Strandin also said being in a training class doesn’t stop benefits from expiring. With federal extensions, up to 99 weeks of unemployment are now available. If that time expires in the middle of a training program, the law doesn’t allow for payments to be continued through the end of schooling, although the local Workforce Investment Board does have a supplemental payment program.

Rivara warned against fudging answers during the weekly recertification for unemployment benefits, which can be done either over the phone or online.

Job seekers are expected to keep records of their efforts to find work, which the IDES can ask for and audit at any time, he said. If the department believes there is fraud occurring, it can sue to recoup those unemployment funds.

But schooling isn’t an automatic loss of benefits, he stressed — something Eige said she wishes she’d been told when she first lost her job.

“I was trying to do it a long time ago, but I was told if I sign up my unemployment was lost,” she said. “It was just plain as day.”

Sean F. Driscoll can be reached at (815) 987-1346 orsdriscoll@rrstar.com.