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Lots of hopes pinned on new IDES director

Tuesday, Jul 14, 2020

* My weekly syndicated newspaper column

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has not had a lot of luck with the Illinois Department of Employment Security since taking office in 2019.

Pritzker appointed Gustavo Giraldo as his IDES director in March of last year. Giraldo abruptly walked out of the office two weeks later. The Pritzker administration has never explained why.

A couple of months later, Pritzker appointed Tom Chan to lead the agency. Chan was a former state Senate Republican legal staffer who had been named acting general counsel for IDES by Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018. Chan was willing to take the top job last year, so, despite being a Republican holdover, he got it. By all accounts, he’s a decent guy who helped negotiate a crucial unemployment insurance revamp this year.

Acting Director Chan faded into obscurity until March, when the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the world’s economy and hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans rushed to apply for unemployment benefits. Every state’s unemployment insurance application system was completely overwhelmed. It’s too early to say how poorly Illinois fared compared to other states, but it didn’t matter a bit to the people who suddenly found themselves unable to apply for benefits that they were legally entitled to receive.

Serious problems persist with the IDES response. As I’ve already told you, most legislators in both parties are up in arms about how constituents who’ve been out of work for months still haven’t been able to reach IDES.

Something had to give. Last week, IDES announced that it was changing its unemployment benefits application process. Callers are now promised a callback, instead of having to spend all day, every day waiting on hold.

And then Chan was suddenly replaced with Kristin Richards.

Richards was named Senate President John Cullerton’s chief of staff in 2016 after serving as Cullerton’s policy and budget director. Senate President Don Harmon kept her on after he was elected to replace Cullerton several months ago, mainly because she’s a serious policy wonk and he needed her help to transition into his new position. She’s also beloved and respected by his caucus members.

Richards is super-smart and knows government back and forth. Yeah, she can be tough when times demand it, but she is also a naturally empathetic person. She is, I think, just the sort of person that IDES desperately needs right now. She has worked on unemployment issues for years and has been particularly involved since the pandemic began. Illinoisans are hurting and IDES staffers are over-worked and over-wrought. The state needs a no-nonsense technocrat as well as a human touch in that position.

Richards also, of course, knows how to handle legislators, which is a hugely important skill right now because legislative fury at IDES (and, by extension, the governor) is all too real. At the very least, her appointment immediately gets most Senate Democrats off the governor’s back. It’ll take her more time to calm everyone else.

Results are the main thing, but having the unique skill of effectively handling legislative egos is crucial for Pritzker’s ability to govern going forward. I wrote not long ago that the governor needed to find a way to calm the uprising, and this is a smart way to do it.

“She can manage the bureaucracy,” said Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), who hired Richards away from the governor’s office back when he was John Cullerton’s chief of staff. “She values customer service. She gets very critical of government when it doesn’t function well. I would say that was her greatest strength as chief — she was always working for members in the caucus and that, by extension, helped the Senate President. She’s as professional as I’ve ever seen.”

The appointment also helps smooth things over with Senate President Harmon. Pritzker was widely seen as a supporter of Senate Majority Leader Kim Lightford as a replacement for Cullerton. Hiring Richards allows Harmon to pick a new chief without suffering any internal pushback from those who still aren’t on board.

The only downside for the governor is you shouldn’t hire somebody you can’t fire. This hire is certainly a gamble, but it’s also likely his best bet. The Pritzker people didn’t seem all that outwardly concerned about the legislative grumbling before, but they wouldn’t have made this move if they didn’t have some worries. It’s a course correction worth noting.

All Richards has to do now is right a sinking ship amidst the worst jobs crisis in anyone’s living memory and save the administration from public ire and legislative wrath. Piece of cake.

* Washington Post

Four months into the worst recession since the Great Depression, tens of thousands of workers like Herdez across the country have filed for jobless claims but have yet to receive payments. Many are now in dire financial straits. […]

The issue has spilled back into public view in recent weeks, as thousands of frustrated workers awaiting payments have camped out, sometimes overnight, in front of unemployment offices in states like Oklahoma, Alabama and Kentucky.

A flood of new jobless applications — about 50 million — has overwhelmed state unemployment offices over the past four months. The agencies themselves are hampered by years of neglect. They rely on reduced staffs and badly outdated technology after years of budget cuts, often at the behest of business groups and Republican legislatures. Issues with fraud and user confusion over the new rules and filing process have further bogged down the process. […]

In Wisconsin, where about 13 percent of claims remained unprocessed as of July 7, residents told local reporters that they had waited 10 weeks or longer for their claims to be processed, leaving some on the brink of bankruptcy and eviction. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development said through a spokesman that the average time from application to payment is 21 days. In Pennsylvania, another 15 percent of claims were still in review as of mid-June.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - don the legend - Tuesday, Jul 14, 20 @ 10:03 am:

    ==A flood of new jobless applications — about 50 million — has overwhelmed state unemployment offices over the past four months. ==

    Maybe if 50 governors were not forced to fight a global pandemic individually these unemployment claims could have more resources to be processed more quickly.

  2. - Nick - Tuesday, Jul 14, 20 @ 10:10 am:

    I’m not really sure the Feds could have done anything to help the unemployment situation, sans some sort of payroll program to prevent people from being fired, or bigger/more stimulus checks, but both of those would be hampered by problems too if PPP and the original checks are anything to go by.

    Our entire government top to bottom just wasn’t as capable of responding as others.

  3. - Back to the Future - Tuesday, Jul 14, 20 @ 10:24 am:

    I am used to government failures, but disappointed in Team Pritzker attitude toward the problem, the GA members that were trying to deal with constituents and economic hardships the problem caused our neighbors as well as other citizens in the state.

  4. - Captain Obvious - Tuesday, Jul 14, 20 @ 10:42 am:

    What % of claims remain unprocessed in Illinois? It appears like it is more than the 15% mentioned above for another state. The answer would make it quite simple to compare how Illinois is doing compared to other states.

  5. - mywife - Tuesday, Jul 14, 20 @ 10:49 am:

    My wife’s employer recently received a unemployment claim for her. The trouble is my wife is still employed and the unemployment claim had her maiden name attached to it.

  6. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Jul 14, 20 @ 11:02 am:

    *As of 11 am Tuesday.

  7. - Responsa - Tuesday, Jul 14, 20 @ 11:21 am:

    Pritzker’s and Richards’ problem right now is not primarily with the legislators and “handling them”. The problem is all the newly unemployed Illinois residents who are unable to obtain the financial help they desperately need. Let’s hope Richards understands this and is up to the job.

  8. - Back to the Future - Tuesday, Jul 14, 20 @ 11:23 am:

    Good management in government can solve problems.
    The new Director from all accounts has a sense of empathy and is highly competent. Hopefully her staff and employees will get behind her new leadership and work hard to overcome funding and technology issues.
    This is not to say the current front line folks aren’t working hard or smart. Nobody applies for the job they have to do without having a real commit to public service.

  9. - Lucky Pierre - Tuesday, Jul 14, 20 @ 11:45 am:

    I know this will go over like a lead balloon here but the best way to fix IDES and lower unemployment applications is to work with the business community in Illinois to encourage private sector employment

  10. - Oswego Willy - Tuesday, Jul 14, 20 @ 12:50 pm:

    To the post,

    Great read, Rich. Thanks for highlighting the good, bad, and the awful.

    This is a thankless job under normal circumstances (Director of IDES), and like all governing thankless jobs, it’s highlighted greater when the agency fails, and saying IDES hasn’t failed is a dishonest look at the overall.

    The glaring things the Governor deserves “less than stellar” grading is nursing homes and unemployment claims, and unemployment claims and processing hasn’t turned any sort of corner.

    Like all appointees, my best of luck, any Governor should be able to place their choice in, and let’s hope for Illinois that the choice brings the necessary governing and in this case a turnaround of an agency in real crisis.

    So much of the good Governor Pritzker has done, measurably, has helped Illinois try to handle this global pandemic. Governor Pritzker should be praised. When it comes to the collapse and failings, weeks and months old now, governors own, and hopefully this change won’t be about making it better for a governor but making it better for all who are struggling, unemployed, and need a functioning IDES.

  11. - 1st Ward - Tuesday, Jul 14, 20 @ 1:00 pm:

    Thank you for writing this Rich. Also, saw a couple of articles over the weekend in the Trib highlighting this. Hopefully a follow-up article is done in a month or so detailing progress (hopefully its progress and not the same issues).

  12. - Da Big Bad Wolf - Tuesday, Jul 14, 20 @ 1:29 pm:

    === here but the best way to fix IDES and lower unemployment applications is to work with the business community in Illinois to encourage private sector employment.===
    Or public sector employment. Counties are still looking for contact tracers and the US Census Bureau still needs Census workers. Not permanent but everything helps.

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