With 1 mil­lion-plus in Illi­nois out of work, gov taps new chief of Em­ploy­ment Se­cu­rity

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY TINA SFONDELES, PO­LIT­I­CAL RE­PORTER ts­fonde­les@sun­times.com | @Ti­naS­fon

Kristin Richards has spent 18 years in pub­lic ser­vice, lead­ing nearly two dozen state agen­cies and work­ing for two gov­er­nors and two state Se­nate pres­i­dents.

She’ll need to draw on all that ex­pe­ri­ence in her lat­est job, tak­ing over the be­lea­guered Illi­nois Depart­ment of Em­ploy­ment Se­cu­rity in the mid­dle of the COVID-19 pan­demic that has left more than a mil­lion Illi­noisans un­em­ployed.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thurs­day ap­pointed Richards, chief of staff to state Se­nate Pres­i­dent Don Har­mon, to the high-pres­sure post, say­ing she is “keenly aware of the eco­nomic hard­ship too many are fac­ing.”

In an­nounc­ing the ap­point­ment, Pritzker ac­knowl­edged, “These are not nor­mal times.”

“As Illi­noisans have faced unimag­in­able hard­ship due to the COVID-19 pan­demic, the Depart­ment of Em­ploy­ment Se­cu­rity has pro­cessed a his­toric num­ber of claims,” the gov­er­nor said in a state­ment. “These are not nor­mal times, and I re­main com­mit­ted to do­ing ev­ery­thing in my power to sup­port our res­i­dents when they need it most.”

Richards re­places Thomas Chan, whom Pritzker said led the depart­ment “dur­ing a pe­riod of un­prece­dented vol­ume and need for the peo­ple of Illi­nois.”

Com­plaints have been con­stant dur­ing the pan­demic as the depart­ment pro­cessed more than 1,361,036 claims for un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits from March 1 through May 30. That’s nearly 11.5 times the num­ber the depart­ment pro­cessed dur­ing the same pe­riod last year.

“The un­em­ploy­ment claims pro­cess has been a source of hard­ship for all too many Illi­nois res­i­dents,” the gov­er­nor said in April. “Our state un­em­ploy­ment fil­ing sys­tems, which were built a decade ago for a much lower num­ber of claims, sim­ply haven’t kept pace. This was the painful truth that we dis­cov­ered when un­em­ploy­ment be­gan to spike.”

Since then, Pritzker has re­cruited re­tired em­ploy­ees from the depart­ment to come back to work; boosted its phone sys­tem ca­pac­ity by 40% and ex­tended daily call-cen­ter hours; opened an­other call cen­ter with 200 em­ploy­ees; and hired con­sul­tants to over­haul and build new plat­forms for the depart­ment. But many Illi­noisans are still com­plain­ing to their elected of­fi­cials that they can’t file claims and, in some cases, can’t reach a hu­man at the depart­ment.

Richards has overseen nearly two dozen state agen­cies and seven state bud­gets. Since 2016, she served as chief of staff to the state’s Se­nate pres­i­dents, most re­cently Har­mon, and be­fore that his pre­de­ces­sor, North Side Demo­crat John Culler­ton.

Richards also served as deputy chief of staff to for­mer Gov. Rod Blago­je­vich from 2007 to 2009, serv­ing as the pol­icy de­vel­op­ment lead on ed­u­ca­tion and cap­i­tal plan­ning. Richards be­gan her ca­reer in pub­lic ser­vice as a James H. Dunn Fel­low in the gov­er­nor’s Spring­field of­fice.

Har­mon called Richards a “phe­nom­e­nal chief of staff.”

“What most peo­ple don’t know is that since we ad­journed, she has thrown her­self into work­ing on the un­em­ploy­ment sys­tem, per­son­ally han­dling case­work for sen­a­tors and pro­vid­ing a hu­man, car­ing touch in help­ing peo­ple nav­i­gate the bu­reau­cracy dur­ing this eco­nomic cri­sis,” the Oak Park Demo­crat said in a state­ment. “I have com­plete con­fi­dence in her abil­ity to suc­cess­fully take on these re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and wish her the very best.”

Illi­nois Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Kim Light­ford, D-May­wood, called Richards “a true pub­lic ser­vant, an in­spi­ra­tion and a pow­er­house of a woman.”

“Shine on Kristin!” Light­ford said.

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