Illinois still logs nearly 38,000 unemployment claims as Pritzker replaces employment chief

Illinois still logs nearly 38,000 unemployment claims as Pritzker replaces employment chief

The Illinois Department of Employment Security has been under fire throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as millions waited for unemployment relief.

Nearly 38,000 new unemployment claims were filed in Illinois last week, bringing the statewide total to 1.45 million claims since COVID-19 restrictions began in March. The 37,626 new claims are the lowest since March 16, but still on par with the past eight weeks.

With new claims holding stubbornly high through half of the summer, pressure is still on the Illinois Department of Employment Security to keep up with the claims. On July 9, Gov. J.B. Pritzker named Kristen Richards as the new head of IDES. Richards has been serving in state government for 18 years, most recently as chief of staff to senate presidents Don Harmon and now-retired John Cullerton. Among Senate Democrats, she has reputation for being sympathetic yet business focused.

Since unemployment claims skyrocketed in March, IDES has been under fire for their slow response and outdated systems that never got better.

Ernie Sandoval, an automotive service manager from Mokena, Illinois, said he called IDES 50 to 60 times trying to get benefits after he was caught by the pandemic unemployment wave in the week between quitting one job and starting another.

“It’s been 12 weeks since I requested assistance and it’s still up in the air. I have not been able to get anything; it’s one roadblock in front of the other,” he said.

Harmon praised the choice of Richards to lead IDES.

“What most people don’t know is that since we adjourned, she has thrown herself into working on the unemployment system, personally handling casework for senators and providing a human, caring touch in helping people navigate the bureaucracy during this economic crisis.”

Richards is inheriting a broken department that has been run by two acting directors during Pritzker’s time as governor. Last March, he appointed Gustavo Giraldo to run the department, but Giraldo quit after just two weeks. IDES’ general counsel, Thomas Chan, replaced Giraldo. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Chan to IDES.

In May, IDES paid $22 million in a no-bid contract to Deloitte Consulting to design the system and handle new claims from self-employed and gig workers. The new system immediately exposed the Social Security numbers of nearly 32,500 applicants. Deloitte now faces a class-action lawsuit for the data breach.

Throughout the pandemic, the response from IDES has been nothing short of a disaster. At its height in April, thousands were left waiting hours online and on the phone to get through to someone in order to receive benefits.

“The computer system that was built to handle unemployment claims for our state was built in 2010 in the wake of the Great Recession, and it was built with the idea that unemployment would never really exceed what we saw in 2009,” Pritzker said on April 13. “But today we are seeing five times that number of claims.”

In May, CBS2 Chicago reported over 12,000 Illinoisans were still waiting to get through to IDES and file a claim. In anonymous interviews with CBS2, IDES employees said the department was understaffed and given sloppy direction to deal with the backlog of claims.

By the end of the month, the problems were so bad that one state lawmaker began the legal process of recalling Pritzker for his inability to deal with the problems and be transparent about them.

Coinciding with the July 9 announcement of a new director, IDES will begin a system to call back those needing to file a claim rather than make them wait on the phone to speak to someone, according to the blog Capitol Fax.

IDES is in desperate need of competent leadership after failing vulnerable Illinoisans when they most needed the state’s safety net. IDES has earned skepticism about whether it can be made to work, and Richards will have a big job ahead.

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