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After A Year Of Demanding Answers, CBS 2 Sits Down With Illinois Department Of Employment Security Acting Director Kristin Richards To Talk About What's Broken And How To Fix It

CHICAGO (CBS) -- More than a year into the pandemic, viewers continue to share with us how the Illinois unemployment system is still failing.

We have painstakingly investigated case after case that you brought to us - each time, asking the Illinois Department of Employment Security to sit down with us and answer your questions about what's broken – and what it's going to take to fix it.

Finally on Thursday, we got some answers straight from the top, as IDES Acting Director Kristin Richards sat for an exclusive interview with CBS 2's Tara Molina.

We got 30 virtual minutes with Richards - not enough time to address the hundreds of issues we have investigated since the bottom fell out of the job market one year ago.

But it was enough time to ask some of the questions IDES still had left unanswered about the issues still affecting so many of you.

Crucial to the state's response to the pandemic, and to the taxpayers of Illinois, we committed to uncovering and investigating your unemployment issues - and the systemic failures causing them - for more than a year now.

But it hasn't been easy. We've had public records requests denied and blacked out. We've requested interviews, constantly, only to get written statements in return – many of which didn't even answer our questions – your questions.

Twelve months of that led finally to a Zoom call between Molina and Richards.

Molina: "Why is this the first time we're hearing from you? Why just written statements every week? Why?"

Richards: "Honestly, I think we've been very, very busy here. We have worked hard to respond to the questions that you do ask of us, but we're happy to sit down today."

This was our first chance to bring your issues directly to the top.

Molina: "People still call this a broken system."

Richards: "For me, Tara, just personally, when I hear that individuals are having a difficult time resolving their issues with the agency, it's heartbreaking."

But a year into a pandemic that caused millions in Illinois to lose their jobs, with many then forced to wait weeks and weeks on help just to try to secure benefits to which they're entitled, what's being done to fix the problems?

Richards said the call center is the major priority for IDES right now.

"We're doing everything now through the lens of, how do we increase that productivity?" she said.

Our latest public records request shows there were 100,920 phone numbers sitting in IDES' queues - people waiting for a returned call; a lifeline to their benefits. Richards said that number is down to just over 100,000 now.

"That is not where we want to be," Richards said. "We just need to continue working to drive those numbers down."

The plan is to do so by increasing call center hours and working through weekends and holidays.

We know people are still waiting weeks on a call for help, but the number of people waiting is only part of the problem.

We continue to investigate issues on the other end of the line - contracted call-takers who can't answer questions or give out bad information.

Richards acknowledges it's an issue.

"Quite frankly, it's unacceptable," she said.

Richards said the IDES is working on monitoring calls and continuing training for those workers.

As for calls that come after weeks-long waits, only to drop or disconnect, she said IDES is also digging into that - and claims it's not a technology problem.

"What we have also started to do is pull a report at the end of the day in our call center that gives us an indication of what calls have been dropped, and we have asked our call center agents to reach out to those people within one to two business days in order to complete the call," Richards said.

And we learned through public records requests that IDES is keeping track of how many of those dropped calls are actually returned by a human.

Another major issue hammering the agency, of course, is fraud.

According to IDES, they have stopped about 1.5 million fraudulent unemployment claims.

But how much have taxpayers in Illinois paid out, lost, to fraudsters? We've asked more than once.

Molina: "Why is it that to this day, we haven't heard a total cost - a number - on the fraud issue in Illinois? Is there a number?"

Richards: "We are working hard to quantify that number."

There is still no answer there. But for the first time, we did get an answer to another question.

Molina: "Why can't IDES open its offices?"

Richards: "We are going to open our office as soon as it's feasible for us to do so."

The timeline right now? Richards said later this summer.

There are plans to test out in-person service at one, possibly two locations, before fully opening their doors.

"We want to ensure we are not creating an chaotic, unsafe environment for claimants that are visiting our office," Richards said. "So we are going to do it gradually."

A gradual plan to reopen and a continued plan to improve – we're hoping transparently.

"I think today, just having this conversation with you about our call center numbers, how our callback system is working, and how there is really need for room for improvement, is important," Richards said.

Right now, IDES is trying to get approval for a $60 million increase to next year's budget to tackle some of these issues, with half marked for the call center and another big chunk going to fraud.

CBS 2 is committing to Working For Chicago, connecting you every day with the information you or a loved one might need about the jobs market, and helping you remove roadblocks to getting back to work.

We'll keep uncovering information every day to help this community get back to work, until the job crisis passes. CBS 2 has several helpful items right here on our website, including a look at specific companies that are hiring, and information from the state about the best way to get through to file for unemployment benefits in the meantime.

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