IBJ: Since you became the ninth director of the Illinois Dept. of Employment Security in June 2011, you’ve been working hard to position IDES as an employment agency rather than an unemployment services office. How is that going?
Rowell: We’re really remaking ourselves. It’s a challenge, but we’re making solid progress and we’re uniquely positioned to do so. IDES has information on more than 300,000 employers, the industries they’re in, the types of employees they’re looking for, and over 250,000 people who are looking for work throughout Illinois. All of this is at our fingertips. In April 2012 we launched Illinoisjoblink.com. Employers may log in and use the system at no cost with laser-like focus, post the skills they’re looking for and find the workers they need. We now also have 20 business service coordinators who are working with Illinois employers at no cost, providing them with HR support.
IBJ: Does this new system take the place of the traditional job fair?
Rowell: No. IDES is still hosting job fairs, but the unique difference between Illinoisjoblink.com and the job fairs is the timing and pre-qualification aspect to it. In a traditional job fair environment, employers are hoping that individuals with the skill sets they’re looking for will attend the event and walk past their table. With Illinoisjoblink, we’re making this more of a science. We’re proactively getting desired skills sets from employers – what they’re looking for – in advance of the event – and pre-screening those candidates so that we can make sure there is indeed a match with the employer so we can set up interviews to occur at the job fair, because it doesn’t always happen automatically otherwise.
IBJ: How is that working out?
Rowell: Candidates are getting offers on the spot, employers are telling us. At a recent job fair in Collinsville, 10 percent of individuals who attended received job offers that day on the spot, and preliminary offers – contingent on background checks and other factors – were extended to others. I’d like to emphasize that all of this is being done at no cost to employers. We’re partnering with chambers of commerce, workforce investment boards, county and local governments, state representatives and others who have a stake in getting Illinoisans back to work. You’re extremely lucky to have Dave Stoecklin (Madison County Employment & Training executive director).
IBJ: You were tapped to head the IDES after serving as the lead state negotiator on the 2011 Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund reform legislation. That led to a law identifying a secure, dedicated revenue stream to return financial stability to the Trust Fund. How is the IDES continuing to protect the Fund’s integrity, and in doing so, protect Illinois taxpayers?
Rowell: The Trust Fund (back in 2011) was in debt $2 billion to the federal government, a circumstance 30 other states faced as well due to the federal deficit. Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber, was one of the leaders of the business community who hunkered down in Springfield with us for four months to try to figure out how to come up with a solution to the crisis. Traditionally, the two ways are to either raise taxes or cut funds. In my view, there was a third way: ensuring that the people who are eligible get the benefits, and the people who aren’t do not. Out of the agreed bill came the TOPS program; through a partnership with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, it allows the state, through due process, to deduct money from the tax refunds of those who have defrauded IDES of unemployment compensation dollars. Attorney General Madigan and two assistant AGs are criminally indicting these individuals; in 2012, they handed down 20 indictments with more to come, and the total recouped is already over $85 million. Protecting the integrity of the Trust Fund – the bank account from which unemployment benefits are paid – is a huge priority of our agency.
IBJ: The IDES is also taking measures to hold employers accountable in how they classify their workers for tax purposes, true?
Rowell: Yes. We’re making an aggressive push on Illinois employers’ misclassification of employees as independent contractors. It’s really a fairness issue. When an employer does this, he or she undercuts law-abiding employers by as much as 30 percent. It’s a big issue for our employers who are doing the right thing and following the law. We are now holding people personally liable who are found to be in violation of misclassification. Our collections are up 27 percent or $21 million in the last fiscal year.
IBJ: Your agency launched a brand-new program a few weeks ago that allows employers to protest unemployment benefits online. How does it work?
Rowell: SIDES – the State Information Data Exchange System – allows employers to protest unemployment claims using a secured Web site and a nationally standardized format. It can save employers and employees money because it will produce timelier, more accurate decisions. Doing so means more money stays in the Trust Fund. If you can surf the Web, you can use SIDES. The system will also save our agency $1 million each year in operational costs because less time will be needed to review protested claims, which used to be done manually.