By Samah Assad

CHICAGO (CBS) — Gov. JB Pritzker named a new director of the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES), the agency responsible for issuing benefits to the nearly 1.4 million people who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic since early March.

On Thursday, Pritzker announced via a news release that Kristin Richards, current Chief of Staff to the Senate President, will serve as director.

Tom Chan was the agency’s acting director in the more than four months of the pandemic. He will remain with the agency in his previous role as deputy general counsel, a state spokesperson said.

Chan has been with IDES for five years, according to his LinkedIn page. His profile shows he held roles as assistant legal counsel and acting chief general counsel, prior to becoming acting director last March.

The leadership change comes after the agency struggled to handle the backlog of an unprecedented surge in unemployment claims due to the pandemic.  CBS 2’s dozens of reports raised questions about IDES’ overwhelmed system and uncovered how, in case after case, people were unable to successfully file for unemployment or get their benefits for months. Some are still waiting today.

CBS 2 also raised questions about why Chan had been noticeably absent from Prtizker’s regular briefings to answer questions about unemployment. That’s despite the fact that, week after week, state numbers showed unemployment skyrocketed by the thousands at the height of the pandemic.

In May, employees who interviewed under the condition of anonymity revealed for the first time the factors contributing to the backlog. They shared what they believe to be a workplace plagued with problems and called for the agency to hire more staff to handle the surge in claims (an agency spokesperson said IDES hired hundreds of new calltakers to help with the workload).

The sources also alleged the agency was so overwhelmed that employees were encouraged to “push” applications through — even those with obvious errors, contributing to a delay in benefits to claimants. The allegations contradicted information IDES released to the public, included statements that said there is no backlog in issuing benefits.

CBS 2 requested multiple interviews with IDES since the start of the pandemic. We’ve only received statements from the agency’s spokesperson. In April, CBS 2 emailed Chan with questions about the challenges claimants face and what steps he planned to take to improve IDES’ systems. We did not receive a response. A reporter called Chan directly that same day and he hung up.

Pritzker’s statement about his appointment of Richards included a bio of the incoming director. It noted Richards is an 18-year veteran of state government, with experience overseeing two dozen state agencies. She has been Chief of Staff in the Office of the Senate President since 2016. In that role, the statement said, Richards provided guidance through the pandemic on health care and unemployment issues. The full news release can be viewed here.

Chan will remain acting director through August.