IDES was inundated with record claims when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The I-Team received hundreds of complaints from people who couldn't get their benefits or get ahold of anyone about other problems.
Kristin Richards became the IDES acting director in August. The state agency has been criticized for failing to keep up with unemployment claims.
"Well, I've been in government for 18 years," Richards said of the situation she walked into. "And, you know, I got the call early in the summertime, to ask if I would give it some thought. And I slept on it and said yes, and I'm giving it all I've got. As you can imagine..."
Richards said IDES has paid out $16 billion in benefits to about 2.4 million people since March. However, those numbers also exposed weaknesses, like an outdated website which has since been upgraded.
"It's no secret that the agency experienced a real loss in headcount and real tech disinvestment over the course of the last decade. So now we're trying to shore all that up," she explained.
The agency is still struggling to keep up with overwhelming calls from people who can't get problems solved online. Many of those people have called the I-Team about delayed payments or a lack of approval for benefits.
"If you are eligible for benefits, and if you are regular unemployment insurance and you are certifying every other week, and your wages maintain your eligibility for benefits, then you should have no problem receiving benefits after you certify," Richards said.
But many technical issues can't get solved unless claimants speak to a representative on the phone.
"We have added 450 people to our call center since May. It is really significant. When the pandemic started we had roughly 100 people in place that were responsible for answering up to 1.8 million calls a week; it was very chaotic to the agency, it was a very chaotic for claimants." said Richards.
A new callback system was added over the summer, placing people in a queue to receive a call back from an IDES representative. The I-Team has heard from dozens of people who say they waited weeks for a call back or never got one.
"What do you want to say to people who haven't gotten the call back yet?" Jason Knowles asked.
"I want to say please stay with us. We're in a one to two week turnaround time right now for calls," Richards answered. "Again, please look out for other information from the agency to help resolve your issue. If you have a question, for example, on how to reset your password, come to the agency's website, and the website to navigate to a page to resolve what it is that you're looking for."
Richards said if you are disconnected after getting a callback, an agent will return the call. She added that she's hoping to expand on newly added text features and emails to increase communication.
That would be helpful for people trying to get answers about letters they've received stating they were overpaid under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. In some cases, PUA recipients are being asked to pay back thousands of dollars to the state due to apparent income miscalculations. There are questions as to whether those notices are accurate.
"What I can tell you is that we brought on an additional 100 people to help make sure that we're verifying wages correctly in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program," Richards said.
The ABC7 I-Team has also heard from many people who've struggled to get answers after falling victim to fraud.
"Unfortunately it's something that is taking a lot of resources out of the Department of employments of security in front. I'm happy that we're working directly with federal and state law enforcement to try and find the bad actors around it," she said.
Richards urges anyone who believes they are a scam victim to report it to the IDES website first.
She acknowledges these are desperate times and that people shouldn't have to wait for benefits they've earned.
"If you are waiting to receive a call from the agency, and that call might be the difference for you, between receiving your benefit, right, paying bills and taking care of your family, that's deeply felt by IDES," Richards said.
The IDES director added that in April of this year the agency processed more claims in that single month than the last 10 April months combined.
RELATED COVERAGE FROM THE ABC7 I-TEAM:
Some Illinois PUA unemployment recipients told to pay back thousands of dollars to IDES in alleged over-payment (October 12, 2020)
Unpaid, delayed unemployment benefits leave many without financial support (September 20, 2020)
Money stolen from IDES unemployment accounts could have been prevented with added security (August 18, 2020)
Illinois unemployment PUA participants say state demanding they pay back thousands, slashing weekly benefits(July 20, 2020)
Illinois unemployment back pay still owed to some, who say they can't get response from IDES (July 14, 2020)