Despite record claims, smaller staff, embattled IDES in better spot than seven months ago new director says
For years, the Illinois Department of Employment Security operated largely out of the limelight, distributing unemployment compensation benefits and assisting people seeking employment.
That all changed this year when the coronavirus pandemic upended the economy and sent an unprecedented number of people in a short period of time to IDES to file claims.
The unemployment system in Illinois was overwhelmed, as were unemployment systems in many other states that weren’t equipped for to handle the crush of 2 million new applicants. Efforts to clean up the mess didn’t succeed and lawmakers from both parties demanded changes as they were flooded with calls from angry constituents unable to get benefits.
Into this came Kristen Richards, most recently chief of staff to the Senate Democrats, one of several positions she’s held in state government over an 18-year career.
“I do not take this job lightly. I knew that I would be coming into a challenging circumstance,” Richards, who was named the new agency director July 9. She assumed the post on August 10.
“I had a sense that the agency had really seen a hollowing out over the years,” Richards said. “We’ve lost roughly half of our headcount over the course of the last decade.”
In 2020, the IDES headcount stood at about 2,000 employees. Now it is just over 1,000.
“We’re working hard to hire and build our headcount back up,” she said.
The department is in the process of adding 226 full-time employees to the agency, just a small portion of the jobs that have disappeared.
“It is going to help,” Richards said. “It has to be combined with how we do our work.
The first new class of about 30 call center agents started in September. Richards said additional classes will be held throughout the fall.
“Additional full-time help for the Department of Employment Security is going to help us deal with our workload, there’s no question,” Richards said. “We also need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to give claimants the information they need in order to navigate the DES system.”
Richards said the agency has found that a large number of claimants who contact the department ask about an issue that is different than the problem they actually have. That means the claimants can get assigned to someone who is unable to help them with the problem they need assistance with.
She added the agency is working to provide additional information to claimants at the outset that will help ensure they directed to staff; who can deal with their issue.
“My real sense is it is a real combination of factors that ties to misunderstanding surrounding the unemployment insurance process,” she said. “People are coming to the Department of Employment Security for the first time. We have a responsibility to do a better job of communicating with claimants so they can understand the information they are receiving from us.”
Some critics of the department have said that IDES offices around the state should be reopened so that claimants can have direct contact with staff rather than doing things on the phone or online. Richards said she personally finds it “beneficial to work with people one on one.” That doesn’t mean offices are going to reopen soon.
“Opening our offices is going to be done with a real sensitivity toward making sure we have a safe environment for claimants and department employees,” she said. “It’s no secret that there have been acts of violence, threatening activity leveled at agency offices and that is hugely concerning. I have a real reticence to do anything that will put people in harm’s way.”
Richards said the department “is in a much better spot than we were seven months ago because we are learning to find new ways to deliver our services. Out of the historic workload is born some innovation around how we deliver benefits and services to claimants.”
Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, has been a frequent critic of IDES and the delays in getting benefits to the jobless. He thanked Richards for personally helping one of his constituents secure the benefits to which they were entitled.
“But I would hope that it wouldn’t take that moving forward to get thousands of people the benefits they are due,” Butler said. “The director shouldn’t have to get personally involved to make sure something gets rectified. It continues to be an issue. We continue to hear from people who problems with IDES. I just hope we can get this figured out quickly.”
He said he’s repeatedly heard of bad customer interactions with IDES, complaints that began under Acting Director Thomas Chan. Chan. Chan returned to his previous role as chief deputy counsel at the agency.
Richards said the agency is working to get to a point where people can resolve any issues they have online rather than needing to talk to an IDES employee. She also said the agency is working to ensure employees “have the customer service skills necessary to work with someone who comes to us for help.”
A lot of call volume comes from people who have questions about certification requirements, Richards said. That’s information about wage history that is used to determine benefits. A person receiving benefits needs to certify every other week.
The department has started sending email reminders to people about certification dates.
“We’re seeing positive results from those emails,” she said.
IDES is also trying to improve online certifications processes to help people who run into problems with them.
At the same time, the department is working on upgrading technology which Richards said hasn’t seen investments in a decade.
“A lot of the answers lie in technology,” she said.
A recent Better Government Association investigation found that IDES only issued 1% of its initial unemployment checks within seven days of an application, the lowest rate in the country.
Richards said the seven day measurement is not something the federal Department of Labor requires states to use as a performance standard.
“But of course, anything we can do to provide claimants with access to benefits is important,” she said. “The agency’s goal is to do everything we can to provide claimants access to their benefits as quickly as they are able to receive them.”
Richards said that IDES gets 82% of first payments out within 14 days. Federal officials said the rate should be 87%.
“We’re doing better than our peers,” she said.
Contact Doug Finke: firstname.lastname@example.org, 788-1527, twitter.com/dougfinkesjr