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 Richards’ 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 and steady 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 of claims the department processed over 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 of Employment Security to come back to work; boosted the department’s 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.