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OUR VIEW: IDES needs significant, transparent reform

Illinois’ unemployment system is broken.

There’s no better word to describe the current condition of the Illinois Department of Employment Security. On top of failing to properly classify personal information and a massive data breach, the system has simply crumbled under the crushing weight of a record number of claims since the onset of COVID-19 restrictions earlier this year. 

Now, at a time when more than 14% of the state’s working population can’t find a job, claims processing is between slow and nonexistent. The agency responded to reports of people waiting hours on hold by introducing a callback request system, but the result was the same: folks desperately in need of aid idling for hours or days just hoping to speak to a person who might be able to help.

No state was prepared for the onslaught of unemployment claims once coronavirus began raging in mid-March, but the timing was especially bad for Illinois, which had only begun to slightly recover from several years of budget gridlock that crippled multiple state agencies. And let’s not kid ourselves: state government had been poorly managed for quite some time before the mid-2010s, as corruption, bloat, underfunding and ineffectiveness marred several different vital agencies like the transportation, family services, corrections, education and so on. 

While things at IDES might have gone a little more smoothly had the federal government done more to disburse financial aid over the summer, we’re also running out of patience for getting our own house in order, especially while navigating the tricky situation of if or how students can return to school and the parents who still have jobs can report for in-person duty.

A few weeks ago Gov. JB Pritzker named Kristin Richards to be the permanent director of IDES. It’s not much after five months, but the hire is a good sign in that it should make it easier to establish the type of long-term planning and solutions made trickier under an acting director. 

However, simply having a new boss is no guarantee of success. Plenty of people are still reporting problems with the system, and although the unemployment rate ticked down in the last few weeks, it’s still more than triple the same period in 2019, so simply waiting for demand to abate won’t be a solution.

The state’s taxpayers deserve more than promised fixes. We call on Pritzker and Richards to detail, as plainly as possible, the measurable goals they’re striving to hit so we can have both an understanding of the baseline standard as well as a means of holding officials accountable.

Furthermore, we suggest the governor and lawmakers evaluate all state agencies and consider how the next major disaster might tax those already shoddy systems. Simply being aware of outdated technology or procedures isn’t enough. If nothing else, coronavirus has been a clarion call to get things in order because unthinkable trouble can and may arrive.

The pandemic also has driven home the reality that states can’t rely on the federal government for help. Although Springfield has different debt constraints than Capitol Hill — and we can’t print our own money — the better prepared we are to go things alone in the long run, the more likely we’re insulated from partisan gridlock and able to provide direct services to Illinoisans in need.

IDES is broken, and it’s not alone. These agencies hopefully aren’t beyond repair, but absent significant, transparent reform, Illinoisans have no reason to be confident of brighter days ahead.

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