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IDES Acting Director says more staff were needed to address unemployment at start of pandemic

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Springfield, IL - The Illinois Department of Employment Security is opening up about the significant hurdles they faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. Thursday was the first time the Illinois Employment Security Advisory Board met since Gov. JB Pritzker started the state's stay-at-home order.

People filing for unemployment are frustrated by busy phone lines and a website prone to random crashes. IDES Acting Director Thomas Chan says the department wasn't staffed for such an event. Chan explains the federal government didn't provide funding for better staffing. He says IDES has also seen a large number of employees retire, meaning there are less experienced members working right now.

For example, in 2014 86.1% of the staff had over five years of experience. That dropped to 67% by this year. Internal documents show seasoned employees with 20 or more years with IDES dropped by nearly 11%. Chan says they need to fill 170 jobs as soon as possible.

"If you look at the statistics, you can see that we're receiving around 200,000 calls from unique claimants each week," Chan said. "Even though our capacity is expanding, we've only ever been able to answer about 15% of those calls."

Calls unanswered

He feels criticism of the call center is justified since people expected the Department to be prepared for the major increase in unemployed Illinoisans. A board member asked Chan why IDES didn't ask other departments to have their employees help. He says they wouldn't have the knowledge of unemployment services.

"It's easy to think that all we need to do is increase headcount; We just need people on the phones. That's just not what it is. The average phone call lasts 15 minutes. If someone doesn't know something about unemployment, they're not going to know how to access our system - click around and figure out what the problem is."

Constant "merry-go-round" cycle

Chan emphasized there are thousands of problems that could come up in an unemployment insurance claim. He notes it takes about nine months before employees are ready to work the phones. IDES moved approximately 75 agency employees from other areas to help in the call center.

More businesses are reopening across Illinois, which means more people are heading back to work. However, others are still struggling to file their initial claims for unemployment. Chan understands growing frustration over the system. The Director says adequate preparation for emergencies will require fundamental change. Chan feels unemployment has been on a constant "merry-go-round" since 1935.

"You have a recession; you have unemployment. During that unemployment, there's criticism of the unemployment system. Very quickly you start to see economic recovery, and very quickly we move onto the next crisis and we ignore the issues we identified until the next recession starts. And then the cycle starts all over again."

Chan hopes the frustration will last beyond the COVID-19 pandemic in order to prompt structural change. To start, he says the Department should have never gone into the recession understaffed. He also hopes to implement a reserve system in order to have qualified unemployment specialists ready for emergencies. Chan says special exemptions should be made to state hiring rules allowing IDES to quickly scale and retain experienced employees. He stressed this is critical as many employees leave the Department to work in the private sector.

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Mike Miletich

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