Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker Thursday named a new director of the agency that manages unemployment claims after the department encountered serious problems dealing with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Illinois Department of Employment Security also started a new approach to helping legions of unemployed workers who have been frustrated by problems with the state’s system for processing their benefits claims.
Pritzker named Kristin Richards, the current chief of staff to the Illinois Senate president, to serve as the director of IDES, the governor said in a release. The agency had been headed previously by an interim director, Thomas Chan.
For months, Pritzker has promised to fix the system, which has been beset with problems, even hiring an outside contractor to staff a new unemployment benefits call center.
But people who have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic continue to report long wait times or constant busy signals when they call the toll-free hotline.
On Thursday, IDES officials said they had made a temporary change to the system. Now, anybody who calls the hotline must leave their information and wait to hear back from the unemployment agency.
Callers to the state hotline on Thursday heard this message: “Rather than wait on hold or call multiple times, you will receive a call when you are next in line without losing your place.”
Although the governor has repeatedly said the problems should have been fixed, a spokeswoman for the department said the change made Thursday to the phone system would “alleviate the need for claimants to call multiple times to get through to a claims rep.”
State officials say they have processed a record number of applications for unemployment benefits since the governor’s first stay-at-home order was issued in March. The pandemic has caused unemployment rates to spike across the country.
Applicants for jobless benefits have grown so frustrated with the system in Illinois that they have shown up at closed-to-the-public state offices and confronted employees walking in or out of the offices. The governor’s office in turn has spent millions to hire outside contractors and temporary staff to help process claims.
Most state lawmakers in Pritzker’s own party sent IDES a letter last month, first reported by Capitol Fax, about the persistent problems facing their constituents who are trying to get unemployment benefits.
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.